All The Books I’ve Read, Running Through My Head. This Is Not Enough.

Over the past week I’ve completed one of my most significant projects, though I’m not megalomaniac enough to think it will present much interest to other people.

It’s a list of all the books I’ve ever read.

Well, not all of them, of course. That’s unrealistic. Since completing it, I’ve remembered a couple more. But I almost certainly got more than half, and perhaps as many as 75% of the real total. And forgetting a quarter or a third of them isn’t a great tragedy anyway, since me reckons that if you can’t recall reading a book, chances are it wasn’t worth your time in the first place.

Some interesting things have emerged out of this exercise. For instance, almost 40% of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative. Even so, they unfortunately don’t include Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and the Strugatsky brothers. My familiarity with the classics, especially in Russian, are extremely patchy. Self-help and self-improvement books total almost 10%, of which 2% are about poker. Here are the detailed stats:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 103 4 107 33.9%
Literature 54 5 59 18.7%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 118 3 121 38.3%
Self-Improvement 29 0 29 9.2%
Total 304 12 316
96.2% 3.8%

Here is the same data, but by total page numbers:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 45,442 936 46,378 36.4%
Literature 15,544 2,000 17,544 13.8%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 52,108 1,021 53,129 41.7%
Self-Improvement 10,311 0 10,311 8.1%
Total 123,405 3,957 127,362
96.9% 3.1%

I highly recommend everyone do something similar. It’s easy (Excel and Google suffice), and though it will take some time – two days, in my case – it will pay off by bringing back good reading memories that would otherwise indefinitely remain dormant, as well as provide an incentive to start systemically writing book reviews. If you can’t write a review about a book you’ve read, chances are the time you spent reading it was wasted. But by writing a review of a book, you decant and internalize the best of what it had to offer.

It will also enable you to make some useful macro-generalizations. For instance, this exercise really drove home the point that my classics base is very weak. Many giants of literature are missing entirely. This is something I can start working on remedying. Another advantage is that you can make some observations about what types of books make an impression, and what types don’t. For instance, I observed that the books that tended to garner 5 stars were usually shorter than others in the same series or broader category. I guess brevity really is the soul of wit.

Comments

  1. I will pass on writing up a list of everything I have ever read. Beyond being incredibly time consuming, I don’t remember every book. For the latter reason I decided to keep an ‘annotated bibliography of everything’ several years ago. Each time I finish a book I write down its citation, the date I read it, and a paragraph long impression of its contents. It does not extend before 2009… but I am glad I have kept it up. It surprises me how often I forget what I have read.

  2. We don’t have many books in common. Going down the list:

    The Bible. I haven’t read more than 10% of it. What can I say, I’m an atheist and it wasn’t entertaining. Can’t give it more than a 1.
    Guns, Germs and Steel. Read most of it. I’d give it a 2.
    Ferguson. I read his two-volume history of the Rothschilds in its entirety, and would give it a 4, but I haven’t read any of his books that you have.
    The Bell Curve. Read maybe 80% of it. 4. Read all of Human Accomplishment, 4.
    Robinson Crusoe. Read as a kid, probably around age 12. At the time I would have probably given it a 4.
    Conan Doyle. I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories and liked them (4) at the same age, though I don’t remember anymore which of his story collections I finished. Read the Lost World, also as a kid. 4.
    Dumas. Read The Three Musketeers, 20 Years After and about half of 10 Years After, all as a kid and in Russian translation. 3.
    Jack London. Read The Call of the Wild and a ton of his other stuff as a kid. 5.
    The Geneology of Morals. The only book I’ve read in German. Deserves a 6.
    Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. Read in Russian long ago. Loved it to death. 5. Also read Black Obelisk, which is just as good.
    Treasure Island. I THINK I read it as a kid, but I may be mistaken there.
    Twain. I definitely read The Prince and the Pauper (5), and I certainly read parts of Tom Sawyer, but did I finish it? Don’t know. Read all of Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court as a kid in Russian. Definite 5.
    Jules Verne. Read Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and a lot of other novels, all in Russian as a kid. Maybe a dozen in total. At the time I would have given them all 5s.
    The Death of Ivan Illich. Read it very long ago, don’t remember liking it then (3?), which doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t now.

    • The Bible. I haven’t read more than 10% of it. What can I say, I’m an atheist and it wasn’t entertaining. Can’t give it more than a 1.

      You don’t have to be religious to find it interesting. (I can’t say it was entertaining, but interesting? Certainly). I was an atheist when I read it. But the stories are good, and parts of it (e.g. Proverbs) are genius and basically a precursor to “self-help” type books.

      Guns, Germs and Steel. Read most of it. I’d give it a 2.

      Because of the politics? Say what you will, but it’s very well written IMO, and some of the ideas like the ease of east-west transmission (as opposed to north-south) struck me as highly original and explanative. And, say what you will, but even if the Australoids had the IQ’s of Ashkenazi Jews, they’d still have been stuck in the Stone Age. There’s only so much you can do with a limited ecological space.

      The Bell Curve. Read maybe 80% of it. 4. Read all of Human Accomplishment, 4.

      The BC certainly wasn’t the most readable of books and could get quite dense at times. But it revolutionized my outlook. Prior to that I had no idea that the evidence for a genetic cause to the black-white IQ gap was so overwhelming.

      Jack London. Read The Call of the Wild and a ton of his other stuff as a kid. 5.

      I could barely finish it. Maybe the Russian translation was much better than the original? That sometimes happens.

      The Geneology of Morals. The only book I’ve read in German. Deserves a 6.

      Here we agree. It’s probably in my Top 10, but not in my Top 5.

      Re-Remarque. You might wish to check out Storm of Steel by Michael Hofmann. I haven’t read it, but the reviews are very good. Basically it’s about WW1 too, but not from Remarque’s liberal perspective, but from an unapologetically reactionary and even pro-war perspective. Hofmann has street cred, as he served in the infantry (whereas Remarque only IIRC spent a couple of months at the front in some relatively safe dispatcher type position).

      The Death of Ivan Illich. Read it very long ago, don’t remember liking it then (3?), which doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t now.

      It’s a very moving book. But not one I would like to read again. I don’t want to think about sickbeds and deaths, particularly as someone who has been periodically prone to depression.

      • On the Bible:

        A lot of it is roughly contemporaneous with the Greek classics. I’ve read a lot of Plutarch’s lives in Russian translation, big parts of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War and bits and pieces of other Greek stuff. The difference between that and what I’ve seen of the Bible reminds me of the difference between the first and third worlds of today. There is a narrowness of outlook and omnipresent superstitiousness in the Bible. I’ve never seen any hints there of any attempts at impartiality, objectivity when describing conflicts. Thucydides and other Greek historians aimed at objectivity. I don’t remember noticing any evidence that the Bible’s authors thought that it might have been at all desirable to make an attempt to distinguish what was true from what they wanted to be true. There is a childish dimness there. Yes, the Greeks also had a mythology, but they went far beyond it, and at about the same time. Also, I don’t recall any subtlety in the parts of the Bible that I read. Every point was driven in with a hammer.

        Guns, Germs and Steel:

        The idea that the horizontal orientation of Eurasia was more advantageous to the spread of species, including domesticated ones, than the vertical orientation of the Americas was interesting. But yes, I think it’s silly to talk about history on that sort of scale (the continents’ differential success rates at building civilization) without talking about biology. There are other factors, sure, but a lot of them end up affecting biology too. Given enough time every relevant factor will affect the biology in some way. It’s like talking about math while religiously avoiding the use of equations.

        Michael Hoffmann:

        Never heard of him, will check him out when I have time. Thanks for the recommendation.

      • More on the Bible:

        The secular Greco-Roman culture died at least partly because it was secular. It became decadent and I’ve read that in the end its elites had very low birth rates. It’s sad that civilization ends up killing itself every time. It seems that instinct and blind belief are better at keeping humanity going than attempts to think, to reason. In a sense, there IS wisdom in the Bible, the Koran and other such books. Some things are better not questioned. On some topics, the less a society thinks, the better off it will be. It’s pretty depressing to think about this.

  3. OK, on Russian classics:

    I also haven’t read nearly as much of them as I should. Of what I’ve read I liked Chekhov’s short stories the most. But I’m biased towards humor. Onegin really is very good, as are lots of Pushkin’s short poems. I remember Yesenin being extremely good. I didn’t like most of the literature I read in school, but that’s probably because I had to read it and I was too young to understand most of it. At the age when the Soviet educational system was forcing me to read a lot of classic Russian literature I was more into Joules Verne, Belyayev (sci-fi), Maurice Druon (French historical novels, much better than Dumas), Mark Twain, Jack London, Rafael Sabatini (pirates, mostly in the Caribbean), etc. TV was boring, there were no computer games, so kids did read a lot at that time, mostly sci-fi and adventure. Speaking of the latter, I noticed another book on your list that I remember finishing then: King Solomon’s Mines. At that age I would have given it a 5.

  4. I agree on the value of writing about what you read. I’m too lazy to do this systematically, but writing about something usually brings thoughts to the surface that I didn’t know I had, and forces me to think about other things I would otherwise neglect.

    (BTW it’s Strugatsky, not Stravinsky)

  5. I really wish I had time to write book reviews. Now I just go through books with a pencil and write some brief conclusions/points on the front page. Then not all is lost, and I can go back and find passages that struck me, but no time is lost. As it takes me, with note-taking, something *a day* to write a comprehensive book review!

  6. Scowspi says:

    BTW, I’m glad to see HG Wells on there. No less a personage than Vladimir Nabokov described him as “a great artist.” You didn’t list “The Invisible Man,” but that’s a great novel, and some of his more fantasy-oriented short stories (“The Door in the Wall,” “The Man Who Could Work Miracles”) are real gems of literary art.

  7. dmitry orlov?

    • Oh yes, I did read his book. Thanks for the reminder.

      • I remember that because you used to post on his blog. How would you score it?

        • “Reinventing collapse”? 3 or at most a 4 out of 5. (I’m leaning towards the former as his response to queries from his blog readers is rude – at least, it was in my case. That is why I didn’t buy his book, but got it from a library).

          You’re probably just better off reading his most seminal article, The Collapse Gap. The problem with RC is that there’s nothing really new in it. But he’s a good writer, so should he ever write something that’s a bit more substantial than a mere rehashing of his blog posts, I’ll buy it.

          • I own RC, the old version. Just wanted to see your point of view on the book. Personally, I loved it when I just got it, but in retrospect it seems like a dumb rip-off of TheOilDrum

  8. Kenneth Macaulay says:

    On the novelist front, for anyone who’s read some of Iain Banks excellent, thought provoking novels, there is some sad news.
    Novelist Iain Banks announces he has cancer and months to live
    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/novelist-iain-banks-announces-he-has-cancer-and-months-to-live-8558213.html
    Banks is still finishing up his final novel called ‘The Quarry’ & is maintaining his excellent sense of humour.
    If you haven’t read him, ‘The Wasp Factory’, his first big breakthrough novel is a great place to start. The Culture series was occasionally a little hit & miss, but he had some brilliant books in there, & there was always something worth thinking about in his novels.
    He will be missed.

  9. Just recalled another “book” that I’d read but wasn’t on the list: The Unabomber’s Industrial Society and its Future. I’d give it a 4/5.

  10. @ AK: If you use university and public libraries, you can ask them if they are able to produce and print lists of books, DVDs and other items you’ve borrowed in the last year or so. You can even ask how far back your past borrowing record goes. That can help jog your memory.

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