Not only can I tell you what I’m reading, but I can tell you every book I’ve read in the last three years—plus the date I finished reading it. I have a spreadsheet, you see.
When I was twelve I read a novel about three sisters, and I remember exactly two details from it. That one of the sisters lost a finger in a cave but managed to get it re-attached, and that the youngest sister kept a diary. Instead of recounting what happened during the day, however, she simply listed the meals she ate. From there, memories of everything that happened in between just slotted into place.
This is kind of what The Spreadsheet has become for me. It didn’t start out that way—my motivation in making it was simple: to strongarm myself into finishing books. It’s like the adult equivalent of a school reading chart. Finish a book, get a sticker. Finish a book, get a default-font entry in your ‘2018 Books’ Google Doc. Turns out you don’t need an anthropomorphised star with a ‘well done’ speech bubble to get that feeling of accomplishment (and corresponding dopamine boost).
Taking a step back from the day to day and the immediate rewards, however, the data I’ve inadvertently collected tells its own story. There are patterns—in what I read and how quickly I read them. There are chains—books that lead to other books. There are insights into mood and to feeling. And there are snippets of memory that otherwise might have permanently stayed at side of stage.
Early January, 2016. Two Agatha Christie books in short succession. Holiday reading. Suddenly I’m in the cramped Airbnb again; can feel the weird lump in the mattress that rolls you towards the window; am remembering that the hot tap is cold and vice versa.
Mid-April, 2018. Half-heartedly skimmed a couple of pages of The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engels before bed. Lay awake for thirty minutes in the dark before giving in. Finished the book in the early hours of the morning. Still don’t know if I actually liked it.
Late September, 2017. Sat in the sun with a cup of tea reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power and laughed out loud when I figured out one character’s name was an anagram of another. Spent the days after finishing absently touching my clavicles.
Then there are the clusters; true crime on true crime, sci-fi on sci-fi. Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner, then A Murder Without A Motive by Martin McKenzie-Murray, then The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett with a chaser of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card because perhaps by that point my mind was railing against our world and just needed to see some children waging space wars against giant ants.
Two books on the same night, because I was stressed. Two books on the same night because I was relaxed. Too long spent on Philip K Dick’s The Simulacra. Three weeks. He probably wrote it faster than my eyes could take it in.
My local library has a ‘Hot Picks’ shelf, which has a limited range of featured books that are strictly one-week loan only. They gain this categorisation because they’re new or popular or tethered to a current event or a film release. Length doesn’t factor. Even if it’s 500 pages, tough luck. You get one week. Every day they’re overdue attracts a fine of $1.10.
These books are my extreme sport.
The Spreadsheet is littered with them. Entries show how some weeks—the best weeks—I’ve managed to power through two, even three. In others, seeing a book’s title sends a pang of stress through my chest as I remember the exam-prep-like focus as I speed-read a novel the night before it was due. Then there are the others; the ones that bring me a mixture of pride and shame.
On the 26th of January, 2018, I finished reading Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. It was a hot pick selected on an unusually busy fortnight. This meant I got three quarters of the way through before the library beckoned. So I returned it. Then I loitered. And when they put it back on the shelf, I borrowed it again. I walked home feeling like I’d pulled off the heist of the century. I assume karmic paper cuts lie in my future.
Through the data I can track what I was doing, how I was feeling. The month where I read nothing at all because things were too hectic. The month where I read far too much—to escape how hectic things had become. The sudden upswing in Terry Pratchett books after I started work on a monthly Pratchett podcast. How the Pratchett books have created, at times, a new pattern that goes: Pratchett, memoir, novel, graphic novel. Repeat.
There are the books I remember nothing about and wonder if it is a comment on me; if I read them too quickly perhaps, or they found me at the wrong moment. With few exceptions I don’t think that books can be classed into good or bad; it’s like soul mates chasing each other through different lifetimes. Sometimes you’re soldiers on the opposite sides of a battle. Other times your ages, your species, your geography don’t line up. The potential is there, but timing and situation conspires against you. Using this philosophy, perhaps in another life I could have liked Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph instead of having it unsettle me so profoundly I had to detox by reading an Agatha Christie novel where it turns out the murder weapon is a cat. Some books make the wrong impact. Some make none at all. I look at one of the tabula rasa titles and think there was a fire in it, maybe? And another: I think they shared a big meal?
The next slot is up for grabs and it’s a tight race for who will get there first. There’s a hot pick, of course, and a Pratchett, and a wild card. But right now, it’s anyone’s guess. Three years is not enough to draw clear patterns; I can’t use the data to predict future behaviour. Reading my spreadsheet is reading my past—right now it only knows where I’ve been, not where I’m going. But give it another five years, maybe, and oh the algorithm I’ll make.
Elizabeth Flux is an award-winning writer and editor whose fiction and nonfiction work has been widely published.