I love historical fiction, and I love to learn about the ancient, classical world. So when I recently heard of David Malouf’s novella An Imaginary Life, which depicts the poet Ovid’s exile to Tomis (in present-day Romania), I rushed, as I so often do, to the online catalog of the local library, and was thrilled to see it in stock (yes, I get that excited over in-stock books at the library).
Settled at home with the slightly worn library copy (the book was first published in 1978), I eagerly dug into Ovid’s struggles to adapt to banishment, living among people with whom he shares nothing: not culture, not habits or interests, not even a common language.
But a few chapters in, a too-familiar feeling set in: an odd mixture of recognition, embarrassment, and a touch of despair. I’ve read this book before! How on earth did I forget? I liked it a lot the first time I read it, and I’m enjoying it now. How could I completely forget that I read this book??
Aside from my job, I read about a book a week for pleasure. So, that’s fifty books a year. That means that, in my adult life, I’ve probably read about 1200 books. Seeing that hefty number, it seems much more reasonable that at least a few of them—even ones I enjoyed—would slip my mind.
Soon after this slip-up, I had coffee with an old, dear friend who reads even more books than me. She mentioned that she keeps a book journal: a log of all the books she’s read. That, I realized, is just what I need. So, I picked up a Muji notebook (my favorite), and for the last three months, I’ve been dutifully writing down every book I read. I just write the month and year at the top of the page, then log each book as I finish it.
But how does this benefit me as a writer? Although it’s early days for my book-logging enterprise, my hope is that this will prove to be a handy repository of useful examples and models for my own writing. A case in point: I’ve recently been writing short pieces (are they essays? prose poems? honestly, I’m not sure yet) on various ancient women—classical, historical, and mythological. Malouf’s novella centers on a real person from the ancient world, and offers a gorgeous example of how a historical fact of a single life (here, Ovid’s exile) can be broadened into a full narrative. So perhaps I, too, can take settled fact and play with it, hold it up to the light, and make it into something entirely new.
As I glance at my book log, I notice another recent read that offers an inspiring example of this kind of work: Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. Crace begins with Jesus’ forty days in the desert (another kind of exile), but his story centers on the small group of fellow seekers who have taken up temporary residence in the desert as well—especially Miri, a young pregnant woman tethered to a lout of a husband. Quarantine takes the bones of a well-known story, and builds from them something original and alive.
I started keeping a diary when I was twelve years old (by the time I was in high school, I preferred the far more mature term “journal”). I occasionally flip through entries I wrote as a teenager or a twenty-something, marveling at how familiar and utterly strange this person is. I wonder if I’ll do the same thing with my book log. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a pile of these, just lists and lists of titles and dates, and I’ll dip into them occasionally to see what I was reading during various writing projects—or during those fallow times when no writing came. Will I be inspired? Will I remember loved books fondly?
At the very least, I’ll be able to avoid accidentally reading the same book twice.