12 May 2007

Somerset Maugham and my Addiction to Spreadsheets

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Back in 1994, after getting through about 30 pages of W. Somerset Maugham's novel Cakes and Ale, I realized that I had read it before. As a result, I began keeping a log of all of the books that I finished. I had a blank journal where I kept track of the title, author, and the date I finished each book. I loved watching the pages fill up and comparing what I was reading at the moment to what I finished a year earlier. Looking back at the titles on the list conjured up memories about where I was and what my life was like when I read a particular book. I finished Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone on a gorgeous sunny September afternoon in 1997 while lying on the grass in the Place des Vosges in Paris. Ann Patchett's Bel Canto was finished on a frigid January day in Minneapolis while I was on winter break from graduate school. I finished Love in the Time of Cholera while I was lying in a hammock overlooking the Pacific on the island of Kaua'i. These are welcome associations I doubt I would make if it weren't for the list.

As much as I love this handwritten log, over a decade of entries made it hard to gather information from the list quickly. I had a devil of a time trying to figure out which of Anita Brookner's many novels I had already read. So I decided to enter all of the data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. And so the mania began. Once the information was entered into a spreadsheet I could instantly sort the list to figure out which of my favorite author's still have books out there that I haven't read yet. Sadly, I have already read all of Maugham, Forster, and the late Carol Shields and almost finished Iris Murdoch's prolific output. Happily, I have a whole lot of Trollope to go and Ward Just, Anita Brookner, Ann Patchett are still alive and writing.

I still keep the handwritten log--there is nothing I like more than adding a title--but now I also add each book to the spreadsheet. In fact, I actually get pleasure from the act of adding data to the spreadsheet. It is busy work that I find deeply satisfying.

Since I started the book spreadsheet I have also created one for every concert and opera that I have been to, one that lists every work of music contained in my 350+ classical CD collection, one that organizes music festivals I want to go to, and even one that indexes all of my favorite recipes by category and tells me which cookbook contains the recipe. Perhaps my magnum opus, is the spreadsheet I created when I was trying to decide which city to move to once I finished my planing degree at Cornell. That spreadsheet has 13 cities and about 22 categories of ratings. Everything from weather, to average airfares to Europe, to the quality of each city's symphony. Each category was weighted by priority and totalled to give me a city ranking. It was a joy to behold, helped me make my relocation decision, and has proven accurate five years later.



This weekend I plan to create a spreadsheet of all the places I have travelled to.

It'll be a hoot. You should give it a try.

10 comments:

  1. I would have thought the spreadsheet was anathema to creative pursuits --which doubtless include reading. You've created a surrealist metaphor (defined as the encounter between a sewing machine and umbrella on a dissection table) and shown the obsessive side of art. Or the obsessive-compulsive side? At any rate, I'm envious: wish I remembered where I was the last time I finished The Red and The Black...

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  2. Never too late to start your list...

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  3. Wow, Thomas, it never occured to me to take my compulsive list making to this level. I think it's awesome. Have you considered putting your book list on the web?

    BTW, thanks for visiting my book list. Most people think that is a strange little endeavour, but I enjoy keeping it.

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  4. If I can figure out a way to do it so that it doesn't take up tons of space I might.

    However, in the meantime, I would be happy to send the Excel file to anyone who is interested. That way you can sort it and browse through any way you want.

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  5. I'm really interested in seeing it, but I'm a techno-loser and wouldn't be able to open an Excel file once I got it. :(

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  6. Hi Thomas. Thanks for the lovely comment on my wordpress blog. I read this post, and immediately had to let you know that recording all the books I have ever read is one of my goals on 43 things. It is number nine on the list. I would love to see your excel booklist. It would help me remember some of the books I've read, and give me suggestions for books to read in the future!

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  7. If anyone wants the Excel list you can email me at onmyporch@hotmail.com

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  8. If I didn't work on excel spreadsheets all day, I would probably do the same, as the detail oriented list-maker that I am...

    I remember putting together such a list back in highschool on my brother's Apple 2. I wonder where the 4" floppy is now...

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  9. I realized the same thing in 1987 and began keeping a hand written list of everything I've read. I'm on my second diary now. The list is also now a spreadsheet and part of a sql data base too.

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  10. I've been typing up my notebook into a spreadsheet as it was impossible to see what I had and hadn't read. I was amused to see that I had recorded reading a couple of books which had made it onto my TBR pile - I'd obviously had them from the library the first time around!

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