Keeping Track

August 15, 2005

When I was in Wyoming I used the debit card associated with the checking account Ron and I share for some purchases. Meanwhile, he continued to use his card at home for gas and groceries. After a few transactions from both of us, Ron got a call from a representative of the credit union.

“We’ve noticed that your card is being used both in Pennsylvania and in Wyoming. Are you aware of that?”

“Yes,” Ron said. “My wife is traveling in Wyoming.”

“The card was used recently to buy museum admission and books,” the caller said. (Even though it was okay for me to use the card in Wyoming, it still might have been stolen. Card thieves, however, are more prone to purchase high end electronics and leather bustiers that lift and separate.)

“That’s Margaret!” Ron said. “Everything is ok.”

This is my fourth annual trek to Vermont (in the twenty-first century anyway). I’ve bought all the carved moose figures, Vermont maple bread boards, and art photos of the Moss Glen Falls that I need. What remains, especially at an event like a writers’ conference, is books.

When I came back from Vermont last year I made a list of the books I’d bought. I created a database called “Book Purchases 04-05” and entered author, title, publisher, genre, cost, and comments (“signed by author at Bread Loaf,” “bought as gift for Lynn”). I also started a “Books Already” list, occasionally entering the same information for the books that fill every shelf and an increasing amount of the surface and floor space in my house. My intention is to eventually have a catalogue of my holdings.

I was diligent in adding every single book I bought (remember, get current, stay current, fill in the gaps as you have time). Today I opened a new file to enter the data for the five books I bought in downtown Middlebury today. I’d gone into the Otter Creek Used Book Store to see if they had an inexpensive copy of the Carol Shields novel I’d listened to yesterday. They didn’t, but I left with used copies of White Palace, (the movie version with James Spader and Susan Sarandon is a favorite), Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (I like the name), and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, because I want to write like Anne Tyler and that work is used as a model in a “how to write your novel” book I have used from time to time in the past.

At the Vermont Book Shop, which I entered because they had a poster advertising an upcoming book signing by poet Lyn Lyfshin, I bought Jay Parini’s The Art of Teaching, intending to have him autograph it this week, and Donald Hall’s new The Best Day The Worst Day, a memoir of life with his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. (I’d read a piece by a friend of hers in the most recent Writer’s Chronicle.)

So, five new acquisitions, and the conference didn’t even start yet!

It doesn’t do much good to compile data if you’re not going to do anything with it but have it. So I took a look at what my “Book Purchases 04-05” might tell me.

I bought a total of 41 books, four of which were intended (and subsequently given) as gifts. Of the 37 I evidently bought for myself, 11 (about 30%) were fiction, 23 were nonfiction (65%), and only two (a scant 5%) were poetry. Of the 23 nonfiction works, 13 were personal essays or memoir, two were literary criticism and biography, three were about natural or social history, four were self-help, and one was a reference book. The cost for all was $665.09.

Okay, that’s what I bought. What did I actually read?

I read all or a substantial part of only eight books. (Some of the books are anthologies, such as Best American Short Stories, meant to be read in pieces. And I didn’t count the self-help books, one advice for procrastinators and one with exercises for overcoming writer’s block, and the reference book, which are meant to be used here and there, not read.) Only 25% of my reading was in fiction. (I read a few novels and some nonfiction in library copies, and short stories in periodicals. If I counted them, the proportion of fiction to nonfiction would remain about the same.)

What does this tell me?

  • For someone who wants to be a fiction writer, I don’t read all that much fiction.
  • For someone who says she reads “all the time,” I don’t, evidently, read all that much. (I start a lot of things and then lose momentum, much as in other areas of my life.)
  • I’ve invested a lot of money in things that are taking up a lot of space.

So, what should I do?

Regroup, set new goals.

In the 2005-2006 academic book-buying year, I will:

  • Keep track of what I read as well as what I buy.
  • Increase my fiction reading to 50% of what I read, starting with the titles I bought last year.

And now, for some reading in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, a novel by Kim Edwards I bought on impulse in Amherst last month.