My book list started, over 30 years ago, with a library contest to see who could read the most books over the summer. As a child who never won gymnastics or swimming ribbons, it was my big opportunity. I won the contest, but the real prize was my new list.

I’ve kept the list in different ways. At first, I numbered the books, so I could try to improve last year’s record. In 1976, at age 15, I read 73 books — beating the 55 I’d read the year before — starting with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and finishing, New Year’s Eve, with “The Magus,” by John Fowles. I stopped numbering the books in 1980 — around the time, not coincidentally, I discovered the lengthy pleasures of Tolstoy, Mann, and Proust. I’ve had a few personal controversies about the list: Do I write down audiobooks? (only unabridged, with a notation). Half-finished books? (no, but it means I’ve wasted time on a few I should’ve put aside). Books I’ve read before? (yes). Diet books? Absolutely not. Am I obsessive? Well… yes.

My book list has made me picky about what I read, because seeing the titles line-by-line brings home the realization that the number of books one can read in a lifetime — maybe 5000? — is finite, and there are so many wonderful writers left to explore.

I love to surround myself with books at home, feeling secure in the company of friends. I’ll never be lonely with Alice Munro, John Cheever, John Irving, Ha Jin, Haruki Murakami, and Toni Morrison at hand. But my book list saves me shelf space, because I can give books away while knowing that they’re never really gone.

My list has been the best, inadvertent gift I’ve ever given myself. And it’s easy for anyone to start: simply find a beautiful journal, date it at the top, write down the name and author of the last book you read, and you’ve got the start of a book list for the rest of your life.

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