If you were to follow this link here you’ll find a version of a spreadsheet of basically all the books I’ve ever read.* It also has lots (and lots) of graphs based on that information. Is making and then sharing such a spreadsheet the behaviour of a madman? Probably. But let me try and explain.
The spreadsheet came about after a conversation with my friend Sushi (@sushi_juggapah) about the relative proportions of the books we’d read that were by marginalised voices of various kinds – particularly by women and people of colour. It occurred, after that conversation, that I had a List. I had a List because, when I was 19, I took the train to Wiltshire to help my dad clean out the attic of his mother’s house, and one thing we found was a list of books he’d been reading when he was around 20, in 1965. The list was, obviously, totally fascinating. So I started keeping a list myself. Luckily, I’d only recently started reading what still felt like ‘grown-up books’ at that time, and so I think I managed to remember most of the stuff that was before that. I’ve kept it up fairly religiously – apart from poetry pre-2010, annoyingly – since. Now, using the List, I could figure out exactly what percentage of the books I’d read were by women and people of colour. From there, the fact that I’m a giant nerd made the explosion of graphs basically inevitable.
So that’s why I made it. But why would I think anyone would care what books I’m reading? Well, basically, I don’t – but what I think is kind of interesting is the information it’s possible to extrapolate from the list. I don’t think my reading habits are significantly different from most bookish types (I read a lot more poetry, I suppose, but the solution to this is for everyone else to read a lot more poetry). So if that’s true, then this data to some extent speaks about our reading culture in general. Politically, that’s worth thinking about. Then again, some stats are just surprising and fascinating: I read books by women at 7 or 8 pages a day faster than I read books by men, for example. Why? I don’t know, and I’m slightly scared about the possible implications, but at least it’s something I’m aware of now, and can think about. Similarly, of what I’ve read, books by white people tend to be longer than books by people of colour, and books by men longer than books by women. This is uniformly true across fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What does that say about our culture of publishing and reading, about who those institutions are giving voice to?
Having said that, there is a lot of extremely politically problematic assumption being made in the way the spreadsheet’s been designed and filled in. I’ve tried my best to explain myself here, but I’m always pleased to hear about how I could do things better.
I’m going to blog occasionally about what I’ve learned from the spreadsheet, occasionally, I hope. Oh, also: it’s riddled with inaccuracies and lazy assumptions. If you spot any mistakes (the spreadsheet claimed for a while that John Updike was Argentinian) please let me know.
One last thing: if you learn from this spreadsheet that I haven’t actually read a book that I told you I had, in order to seem clever, please forgive me. I was mistaken.
* It doesn’t include poetry from before 2010, and doesn’t include academic works from the time I was at University, and it doesn’t include books I’ve just skimmed, or just read bits of (like Collected Poems), and there’ll be books I’ve forgotten, and it doesn’t include books I read before 2006, mostly because the books I read before then were either Redwall books or Asterisks & Obelix books.