“That seems too much like work,” a commenter said, two weeks ago, about reading spreadsheets, and I haven’t been able to get that thought out of my head. If you work all day with spreadsheets, I can understand not wanting to return to their gridlike shapes in your after-hours. But if they just sound intimidating? The thing about a spreadsheet is that it’s only as complicated as you make it.
There are some impressive, elaborate versions out there; just searching “reading spreadsheets” will turn up loads of templates. But I like to keep it a little simpler. Okay, a lot simpler. And to tell you the truth, no reading tracking system has ever been easier—once I got the basic template up and running.
Things I have tracked my reading with include:
a tiny notebook the size of an index card (it filled up so fast)
a Metropolitan Museum of Art-themed journal that had space for maybe six books a month (I was a kid; this was not enough)
the backs of the books themselves (penciling in the month and year finished)
my head (very faulty system, do not recommend)
the back of a journal (how to remember which books were written down in which journal?)
Probably there were more places, and there were plenty of years when I didn’t keep track at all.
Bookselling brought me back to the practice in a more organized way. I was reading more than ever before, and I wanted to keep track—partly just to know, and partly so that I had a resource when I was trying to recommend a book to someone. If you can keep every book you’ve ever read in your head, I admire you. I used to be like that. But then my head got full of other stuff, like memes and social media drama and even more terrible song lyrics. It’s crowded in there.
The spreadsheet idea came from my friend (and, at the time, fellow bookseller) Jenn Northington, who has done really cool things with her spreadsheets, like turning them into pie charts at the end of the year. I have never been quite that ambitious. But I like to see patterns and I like the satisfaction of the rising number of books-finished, every year.
And now, as the sheet begins its ninth year, I love the simplicity of being able to click to a tab and see what I’ve read since 2014. If you use one tab per year, it’s all there, easily viewable, no new documents or endless scrolling through a list required. I use it for reference when I’m writing, to jog my memory or remember trends in my reading; I use it when people ask for recommendations; I use it as a sort of diary, too, remembering why I read some books, where I worked, how my reading changes from job to job.
It’s simple. I swear. And endlessly malleable. A spreadsheet can be as plain as this: title and author. I don’t put first and last name in different columns because I’ve never wanted to sort by author (rather than by date read, which is how I enter them), but you could!).
Yes, you could do this in any word processing program. But then you don’t get tabs. I put each year’s reading in its own tab, so I can easily flip through everything I’ve read since I started this system.
Next, I added a column for publication date, to see if I was reading more new or old books, and then dates started and finished, because sometimes I like to remember which books I read in 24 hours and which books, for whatever reason, took me weeks. I added gender because I knew I read more women than men, but how many more? And then a year or two ago, I added nonbinary to the gender categories.
Then I have columns for genre or form. This is all up to you! Some people might track formats, too: paperback, hardcover, audiobook, ebook. Maybe you track whether you bought or borrowed a book. Mine changes a little bit year to year. One year I read a lot more poetry, one year a lot more YA. “Genre fic” for me basically means SFF, but also the slippery books around the margins that aren’t called SFF but seem to count that way to me.
And at the end, a little bit about the author, and notes.
The “author” column used to just be “country,” in part because I was running a book group and trying to read a book from a different country each month. That seemed like not enough, yet also got complicated: country of origin or country where they lived? Now I use it to, again, see patterns: Have I not read a book in translation for a while? Am I reading all white American novelists? You can track whatever you want to be aware of, here. Same with the notes: I keep track of books I reviewed, but what I want to start tracking there is who recommended a book to me, or where I heard about it. More things in which to see patterns!
I don’t fill out the details for a book until I’ve finished a book. Those I don’t finish, I slide to the bottom, where the DNF (did not finish) books live. It’s been useful to keep track of these; sometimes I go back and finish them (in which case I move them to the proper year’s tab) and sometimes I see patterns in what I didn’t click with in a given year. I add a little note about why I quit reading, though sometimes that note is just “not feeling it.”
There’s one bit of math on this spreadsheet: a tally at the bottom of the gender categories. The formula is just “=sum(F2:F103)” where F2 and F103 are whatever the top and bottom cells of the relevant column are on your sheet. That’s it! You can also have it add up each genre, if you like; that was initially the purpose of the “1” in each book’s relevant genre column. (You could use a fill-in-the-blank box for genre—but then you don’t get the satisfaction of getting a sense of what you’re reading with just a glance.)
The spreadsheet is also where I keep my list of books I want to read (they get their own tab). This is much easier to find and remember, for me, than a note on my phone, or another document, or simply trying to remember every single interesting book that catches my interest. It’s also easy to subdivide that list in whatever way you like—genre, form, topic, you name it.
At its heart, a reading spreadsheet is just a fancy list. It doesn’t need to do complicated math or have conditional formatting or any of those elaborate things the spreadsheets can apparently do. (It can! And that flexibility is part of why the whole concept is so great.) It’s just a different kind of list that makes it easy to see whichever details you want to include.
Like everything else to do with stories and how we engage with them, reading tracking is personal and subject to all your whims and foibles. But it’s practical, too. If you read mostly library books, a list will keep you from mistakenly checking out things you’ve already read. If you’re a book minimalist, someone who doesn’t keep everything they read, how else to remember every book you’ve read or started or given away or even just read a few chapters of?
Also it’s just fun to look at all that data. If you have that kind of brain. And it’s satisfying to add a book to the sheet, to fill in the date I finished reading it, to pinpoint that moment in a tiny, personal way. You don’t have to do any of this. But you just might find some joy in it.