Read, Record, and Remember: Keep a Book List!
Books did not make George Washington Vanderbilt II wealthy or famous—his family name did that. But books were his life. While Vanderbilt’s grandfather, father and older brothers spent their lives collecting and managing the family’s unprecedented railroad and shipping fortune, George read. He read as a child, he read while traveling abroad, he read at his North Carolina estate, Biltmore. While recovering from appendectomy surgery in Washington D.C., he turned page after page of Henry Adams’ third volume of History of the United States. He never finished it.
In March, 1914, George Vanderbilt II died. Adams’ History, the last book he pulled from the shelves, was also the 3,159th book he attempted. At the early age of 12, Vanderbilt began recording each book he completed, dutifully jotting down its title and author. Vanderbilt titled his list Books I have Read and from the time he started the record until his death, he averaged 81 books per year.
Like Vanderbilt, I keep a book list and record the author and title in a green journal next to my bed. I also include the month in which I finished the book and often note if it was recommended and, if so, by whom. I’ve kept my list since 2003 and each scan of my annual literary ledger is a trip through my past.
Sleep was hard to come by in the winter of 2006. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian had me counting something other than sheep when I hit the pillow. I didn’t go so far as to drape garlic around my neck—much to my husband’s relief.
In May of 2007, I read the entirety of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on an Air Austria flight. In the time it took to fly from Vienna to Denver, I was hooked. I needed to get my hands on Rowling’s succeeding six. So, the rest of that summer Harry and I lounged together on my front porch drinking Cherry Cokes, eating biscotti, and creeping underneath an invisible cloak through Hogwarts.
John McCain’s Worth the Fighting For and Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father became prominent candidates on my list in 2008. I’ll always be reminded that this was an election year, long after I’ve forgotten the debates, the political ads, and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.
Countless books—Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, John Toland’s The Rising Sun, Trinity by Leon Uris, and Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, to name only a few—have been welcome stowaways tucked into my carry-on luggage, friendly companions as I journeyed from home.
Reading lists are also “wordy” photo albums, so to speak, ones that indicate past and ongoing interests, favorite authors, and preferred genres. Oprah Winfrey, as her Book Club reveals, was on a William Faulkner kick in 2005, recommending three of his books that year. In 1988, Gardiner Public Library in Maine founded Who Reads What, documenting the books celebrities have read from year to year. As might be expected, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg enjoyed John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, by Jean Edward Smith in 2006, and Tony Blair read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 2000, perhaps anticipating the movie’s release in 2001. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin reads anything by Tom Clancy, and Miss Piggy’s favorite book, true to her roots, is Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.
Recently, I’ve started to encourage my family and friends to keep book lists. These lists can be familial hand-me-downs, allowing grown children to read the books their parents, or event their grandparents, read. They provide a quick and handy reference from which to offer recommendations to neighbors and co-workers. They aid students who might later enjoy a complete reading of a novel or text they only skimmed while in school. But most of all, in the seconds it takes to record each publication, a lifetime of memories are preserved.
In perusing his list, one wonders which leather-bound editions sparked Vanderbilt’s recollections of his famous parents, the construction of Biltmore, attending Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration, where he met his wife, or the birth of his only child, Cornelia. And while reading 81 books per year might be unmanageable for most of us —Vanderbilt did not have to work, after all—recording the titles of the many books you have (or haven’t!) enjoyed is not that daunting. George Vanderbilt II was on to something; start keeping a book list, and you’ll discover just what that is.