A Keeper of Records: What’s Worth Saving?

It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.

When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:

  • every book I read
  • every movie I saw
  • dreams, recounted in detail
  • money I found on the ground
  • items I bought or sold on eBay
  • gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
  • transactions made through my mail-order music club
  • all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing

Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.

What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.

Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a childif I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.

This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.

My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.

That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.

Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”


A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:

In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.

I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!

As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.

I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?

As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.


Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?


How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?

22 responses

  1. Wow! I recently chucked my Library School notes, all meticulously hand written in different coloured inks and then never consulted. I have all my notes from the Iris Murdoch conferences I’ve attended and I have all my book diaries since 1997 when they began. I also have some very dodgy and detailed diaries from my single years in London I need to basically burn. Hm. I have a tin trunk of certificates and stuff from when I bought my flat and cards from important people etc and a load of work files, but there’s not too much of the ancient history around as i got all that dumped on me aged 18 and had to be ruthless (some stuff arrived here that I didn’t know had been kept, via a friend, so I do have my geology collection and record book!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was pretty ruthless in recycling the schoolwork from subjects I’m never going to need to consult again (history, chemistry, genetics, physics, calculus). However, I saved out one page of calculus homework to show to a long-time friend who took the class with me and had graded it when we swapped papers, and she told me that she had to use derivatives at work just the other day! (She works on robots and driverless cars.) It was so odd to think how much our paths had diverged.

      I still have an astonishing amount of schoolwork, photos and mementos in storage in America, at least four large boxes, I think, and then more over here. I’m so sentimental that I find it hard to get rid of personal correspondence, and the essays I wrote in high school and college feel like part of a trajectory leading into my career and so I’ve saved most of them. I do wonder who will ever be interested in my diaries, etc., though. I have little hope of my nieces and nephews ever caring enough!

      So you’re a qualified librarian? Have you ever considered going back to it? In the six years that I worked in libraries various colleagues did part-time degrees and pretty much unanimously seemed to find it a bore / a waste of time, yet it was necessary for their career advancement.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, as I never practised as a qualified librarian and certainly couldn’t now. I had to go out of libraries after my undergraduate degree and one-year pre-library school job in a library, as I couldn’t afford to go back to college while my boyfriend was still doing his PhD. So I worked out in customer services then for a dictionary, did library school full time while working in a call centre then for the dictionary, and couldn’t get a qualified job as I’d been out of libraries. I then worked at a library supplier for eight years, then when we came back up here I tried to get a qualified job but couldn’t, so ended up an overqualified library assistant, and whenever I went for qualified jobs it was the same story. However, it’s useful to reassure my clients now that I’m legit and decent, so the degree serves a purpose, I suppose!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. More of a purpose than my Victorian Literature MA, anyway 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ha – I can also sign people’s passport photos, even though I didn’t even get the Master’s bit of it (but am still qualified).


  2. I love a list and don’t know how I’d function without them! I recently found an old notebook with a list of book titles as I read them but only with one word by the side of them – ok, good, fab etc – and can remember very little about each book so I wish i’d made more notes back then! I think it’s good to keep a few reminders of the ‘little things ‘ in the past as the memories can evoke such a response when you’re looking back!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve learned that if I don’t write a proper response to a book, even just a sentence or two, it’s as if it’s lost to me. I came across the title of a book today that I didn’t recognize at all, but apparently I read it in December 2015 and rated it three stars!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love my lists! Love the fact that you kept a list of money you found on the ground!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your lists! I do love ephemera and do occasional blog posts on the topic. I am, however, forcing myself to scan (and back up) cuttings and the like to reduce the bulk a bit. I have books full of song lyrics and guitar tab I laboriously copied out in my teens amongst my papers. I have plenty of my mum’s papers still, although I converted all her diaries into a huge spreadsheet – the entries being primarily films and shows seen, and places/people visited. I have kept oddles of stuff from my daughter’s school years for her, which are finishing next month! My master spreadsheet of books I’ve read started in 2006 and continues to prove very useful alongside my blog for remembering and fixing book details in my mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hadn’t thought about scanning in all my mementos, essays, etc. I feel like it would take me forever! It might well be the way to keep all my publications in the future, instead of having big stacks of magazines and newspapers — though I still don’t know if I could bring myself to recycle the original print copies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m only disposing of some of the things I’m scanning. Some are just too treasured to recycle I agree. The scan is a good back-up though.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with you absolutely about writing even a few words about a book I’ve read if I’m to remember it. I make copious ( often illegible) notes when reading for review but rarely need to consult them. The act of note taking seems to make it stick.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve moved so many times that my record and note keeping hoard was culled en route. I have a stack of notebooks containing either writing notes and drafts or book reviews . I know my family will not be in the least interested, so why am I keeping them? Somehow I’m not quite ready to toss them into the recycling.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve kept a record of everything I’ve read since 1992. I’ve kept a list of birthday and Christmas presents since I 1989.

    More recently I have made a note of films and shows I’ve seen.

    I’ve got boxes and boxes of memories in the loft for my son to clear out after I’ve gone.

    I do love to read a list and see how many I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. meeting yourself from all those years ago must be a strange experience. I’ve not kept any of my school books though do have the question papers from some of the major exams. I don’t think I’m brave enough to want to look a those old essays (too embarrassing to think I could have written such dross I suspect). Am I a list maker or a collector – not really. I’m just a hoarder with no particular system to my acquisitions.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Foster @ Bookish Beck: As an active freelance reviewer, Rebecca writes at the quality you’d expect, covering a […]


  10. I love this post! It’s so much fun, and I especially like hearing more about you!
    I definitely did not make as many lists as you, but I was always sentimental about my things. In grade 4 my grandfather helped me build a small wooden box (about the size of a boot box) which I painted a rainbow on, and used it to keep all my private and “special” things. (I have 5 siblings and privacy was hard to come by.) It had a combination lock on it. I still have it, and it has the same lock with the same combination which I still have memorized. It holds all my old letters from friends, notes passed in class, diaries (which I’m contemplating getting rid of before I die and my kids find them and die of embarrassment on my behalf), a very small amount of terrible artwork and poems, and some school pictures of friends. My kids always want to look through it but I have never let them!
    What a good idea to watch through a list of movies – something I will keep in mind for my empty nest years!
    My daughter, who is graduating this year, read The Fountainhead so she could enter that same contest! I had never heard of the contest before.
    And I am so impressed with your French. Much better than mine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can just picture your rainbow box. How sweet that you still have it with all its original contents. I imagine it will be a fun thing to get out with grandkids 😉 And then maybe you’ll decide how much of it is awful and must be disposed of!

      I didn’t know the The Fountainhead contest was still running. It would have been 18 years ago that I entered. How did your daughter like the book?? I also read Atlas Shrugged (1000+ pages) for the college essay competition, though I can’t remember if I even entered in the end. Ayn Rand’s books have really not aged well. The ideology is so heavy-handed, and I seem to remember the female characters are, ironically, not very well developed.


      1. She didn’t love it, but thought parts of it were interesting. Last year she read Anthem, but didn’t enter the contest for it.


    2. Ah, Anthem, that was the other one. I think the Ayn Rand Institute sent me a free copy of Atlas Shrugged and that’s why I read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I wasn’t quite as much of a record keeper as you were, but I did keep detailed notes on my reading for years! I hope I still have those somewhere. Like you, I’m also feeling a desire to do something more meaningful with my life, so I appreciate you sharing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] periodically prone to melancholy musings on the impending end of the world (like here). Reading this punchy collection of 35 essays was a way of taking those feelings seriously and […]


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