Last week I told you the revelation I had about my actual first mysteries, sparked by a mention of Joseph Conrad on page 104 of Burglar on the Prowl. Just a few pages later, on page 121, Bernie talks to a book-buyer about Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent and the spy thrillers of Graham Greene.
Coincidentally, as it happens, I had just read Shirley Hazzard’s memoir of Graham Greene, Greene on Capri. (This is particularly coincidental because the island of Capri is central to Ellen Raskin’s Figgs and Phantoms, the other book I talked about last week.) Hazzard makes an offhanded remark in the memoir about one of Greene’s biographers, saying he would have been better off reading all the books Greene had read rather than traveling to all the places Greene had visited.
But how could any biographer do such a thing, unless Greene had kept a list? Greene lived in the time before Goodreads and LibraryThing and other online books-and-reading trackers. It’s possible he kept a list of the books he read, and it’s possible that the list survived him and is now part of the Graham Green Papers at Boston College, a collection of 94 archival boxes. But most people – authors or not – don’t keep such lists.
I do, though. Do you? Why do you? I’m not sure why I do. I started when I when I was a teenager and have followed the same logging pattern ever since: author, title, and one or two words pronouncing judgment on the book. Once in a while I go back and look at some particular part of the list and remember a particular part of my life, but not often – most of the time I just doggedly log my books, out of habit I suppose.
Let’s pause here to honor the ridiculous amount of time I have just spent looking through my book list for a decent-size segment of the list that won’t embarrass me. There is no such segment.
So I’ll just show you the first page of the list, from 1987. I have done no forensic work on the paper, so I can’t say for sure what that smudge is at the V.C. Andrews entry. Most likely, it’s from tears of shame. There are several books on the list, though, that hold up pretty well twenty-five years later. I’d no longer claim that The Mists of Avalon is “Possibly the Best Book I Have Ever Read,” and I have to laugh when I see that I found Sense and Sensibility “a little slow, but worth it,” but I’ll stand by several of the “good” and “great” statements on the list: Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland, John Fowles’s The Magus.
There’s only one obvious mystery on the list, Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I proclaim, at age seventeen, to be “okay.” I read a lot more mysteries now than I did then: the list for 2012 would include Laurie R. King, Kate Atkinson, Janet Evanovich, Robert B. Parker, and of course, Lawrence Block, which is where this story started.