What have I already read? An ongoing way to answer an increasingly difficult question

In my previous post, I described how I set up a robust system that creates content treadmills across a variety of media, each of which helps me to navigate ever-increasing libraries of items that interest me.

That post covers what I do before I engage with media. The unspoken flipside of that is the story of what what happens after I'm done with something.

There's a short summary and a long narrative to that story. The short summary is that, like my Media Captain, I simply log things in a spreadsheet. Every movie I watch; every game I play; every book I read gets its own entry in an ever-growing list.

The long narrative, however, is what those entries look like and, more importantly, feel like — in aggregate.

In the mid-2000s, I discovered digital cataloging sites. RateYourMusic for tunes, IMDb for movies, and Shelfari for books, among others. After discovering these, I attempted to import everything I'd listened to/watched/read up to that point. In doing so, I got angry that I hadn't been tracking these things more comprehensively. I tried to roll back in my memory and think of everything I'd enjoyed as a kid in the 90s — all the stuff I'd grown up with, my favorites of childhood and adolescence.

I was somewhat successful.

I was able to remember a good amount of significant items of interest, especially things that I had returned to in the years since, but much of the content I enjoyed is unfortunately lost to time. I don't remember most of the books I read in elementary school, for example, and I was a kid that read voraciously. I got so many free pizzas through the “Book It” program that my mom pretty much had a standing weekly appointment with our local Pizza Hut.

Even my logs for middle and high school are spotty at best, and that was where reading moved from a cool activity to do because it got me free pizza to something I did because it was intellectually and emotionally fulfilling for me.

Confronting these gaps in memory was the first time that I genuinely understood data loss at a personal level. I'd had digital data loss happen via hard drive crashes and, thankfully, learned the importance of having backups earlier than most people I know, but that applied to external information and not personal experience. Attempting to look back through my own timeline of life and finding significant gaps was unsettling to me — it felt like I was losing parts of myself.

As such, it was during the mid-2000s, when I joined these media sites, that I decided to take certain aspects of personal experience and commit them to digital record. My own brain's backup game was weak, but computers' backup game was (theoretically) flawless.

So, I decided to start logging everything.

Currently, in 2021, according to the book log I’ve maintained ever since then, I've read a total of 1,264 books in my life. For movies, I'm at 946 watched. For games, the total is a whopping 1,574 played. I play a lot of games.

Each of these is an undercount of the actual total, as these are missing all those items in my childhood that I can't remember, and I'm sure the occasional entry has slipped through the cracks over the years, where I've meant to log something but didn't and forgotten about that too.

Nevertheless, I'd estimate that my logs are, from about 2005 onward, >95% complete.

I used to keep this data in those cataloging sites I mentioned. It was fun, and they were very convenient, but the more information I put into them over time, the more I realized that the record of my media consumption was like a very specific, very revealing fingerprint of who I am. Furthermore, as I became more aware of data abuses on the internet it made me less inclined to register my every item with sites like that.

There were also some pragmatic concerns I had with completeness. Some of the stuff I was interested in didn't have entries on those platforms. I remember going to a local screening of a documentary that didn't have an IMDb entry, so I couldn't log it. I found music from indie artists posting MP3s on their home websites for download, and none of these were in RYM's catalog. I downloaded and bought books from authors who self-published outside of formal book channels, so Shelfari had no data on them whatsoever.

My adherence to data completeness made these absences infuriating, so I started keeping a separate log for items that weren't in the catalogs of what I was using. Eventually that separate log became the main one. It ended up being better to house everything under one roof than try to run two different logs in parallel across different platforms.

I also ran into the reality that I could put data into these sites but I couldn't necessarily get it back out. I can no longer remember which site it was that I was using (ironic, given my overt commitment to avoiding memory loss), but I learned after that particular site got hundreds of entries from me that there was no data export feature. The site was happy to hold onto all this information for me but didn't ever want me asking for it back. I didn't like that.

The one-way nature of the data relationship, the incompleteness of the catalogs, and my growing privacy concerns were what caused me to shift my logging from public platforms to private spreadsheets.

Well, that and the fact that there were some items that I didn't really want to share with anyone else.

You ever read a really steamy romance novel? Or a true crime thriller about a genuinely sinister serial killer? Even “worse”, do you ever genuinely enjoy those?

These are some of the most beloved and widely read genres in literature, but admitting to liking them publicly can raise eyebrows. These are the kinds of items that don't stand on their own but tend to imply a whole lot about the person who identifies with them. Those implications are often unfair, but they nevertheless do happen.

Thus, part of the reason I pulled my logs to private spreadsheets was that there were items on there I didn't feel like sharing with anyone — even the seemingly impersonal databases of digital catalogs. Even under a pseudonym, admitting to engaging with content of that type — much less enjoying it — felt revealing in a deeply uncomfortable way.

My commitment to avoiding data loss wasn't just related to memory — it also included avoiding it due to self-censorship. I didn't want to selectively avoid logging items that appealed to my more prurient interests, but I also didn't want to offer those items up to anyone else's scrutiny either. As such, a spreadsheet that I, and only I, had access to was the ideal solution. I'll be truly transparent here: my logs contain some genuinely blush-worthy stuff. They have items on them that would require some serious explaining were someone else to thumb through then.

I'm okay with this though, because my logs aren't meant to be anything to anyone else — the only person they will ever matter to is me. Nobody else is going to be thumbing through them. This assurance permits me a complete honesty with myself and creates a place where I don't have to hedge and manage my image or live under the scrutiny of what others think. These logs aren't theirs, and they never will be.

Even outside of controversial items, however, I jealously guard the privacy of my logs because there's a genuine intimacy to them. They feel less like lists and more like an emotional and intellectual map of my life. In the same way I can revisit old photos to trigger memories of events, friendships, and experiences, I can revist these lists to see where I've been, what I've been interested in, and what has left a lasting impact on me.

When I look back at the logs for 2011, for example, I can see, to some extent, who I was ten years ago in the form of the media I consumed back then. I can also evaluate this now from a separate, current perspective: what has still stuck with me, a full decade out?

Julia Serano's Whipping Girl was a favorite book that year — the first ever full-length book I'd read about transgender issues. I watched and loved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, not knowing at the time that it was an adaptation of a graphic novel series (which I wouldn't read until 2015). The Binding of Isaac was my favorite game that year and was my first real interaction with the soon-to-be booming genre of modern “roguelikes”. Each of those still has resonance with me, ten years out.

The logs also help me answer more down-to-earth questions — simple ones like like: “Did I ever actually read that book?” The older I get, the more clear it is to me that my memory is like sand through a sieve.

For example: in 2007, I read Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

If you ask me to tell you about the book — what is its plot? who is the main character? when does it take place? — I come up blank. I literally have no recollection of it.

Meanwhile, if you were to have asked me if I had read that book, prior to me consulting my own records just now, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Did I read that? It sounds somewhat familiar? Maybe? I assume it's about a bridge of some sort?

This is, of course, not the only book for which this has happened.

Two years later, in 2009, I read Ron Carlson's Five Skies, and I can't tell you a single thing about even one of the skies.

I have no recall of reading Cynan Jones's The Long Dry in 2015 or Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies in 2018, and I actually loved that last one. I remember thinking it was beautifully written and powerfully resonant, but if you ask me to tell you anything about any of its short stories, I come up blank. They are all sand through the sieve.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer Prize, by the way. That was actually why I read the book in the first place, as, looking back, I can see that I was on an “award winners” kick at the time, but even that significant detail about the book has been forgotten by me to time. The only thing I can tell you about the book is that I definitely did read it, and I know that only because 14 years ago I logged it in a spreadsheet that I've been adding to pretty much weekly ever since.

I like the logs because they hold onto what I definitely can't, and what becomes increasingly more likely to be lost over time.

It feels weird to admit this following part out loud, but these spreadsheets are so important to me that they're essentially one of the most valuable things I have. I make sure I have backups of them. I make sure those backups are safe and recoverable and available from multiple locations. If I were to lose them, I would essentially be inconsolable.

These logs don't have any grand significance, and they don't matter to anyone else but me. In fact, I genuinely don't want anyone else to see them. Even sharing my totals earlier felt revealing because of all the ways people can read into those numbers and come to their own conclusions about me, my life, and the ways that I choose to spend my time, which is the opposite of what I want.

I don't want public scrutiny for this data. I want this data solely for myself.

The logs mean something to me because they have been, going on two decades now, the most consistent habit I've ever held. They represent a specific and highly detailed fingerprint that captures the ways in which I have chosen to spend an aggregated tens of thousands of hours of my life. They hold patterns and memories manifested in the form of media, just as they hold on to pieces of my own experience that I'm unable to hold onto myself. If you asked me to list out all of the movies I’ve ever seen, I'd have a hard time pushing that list past 100, but my logs are currently holding 9 times that. I'll break 1000 total movies watched by next year.

And that’s the most important part. These logs are continuing to grow. I it’s deeply compelling to me to know that they'll still be going in five, ten, maybe even fifty years (assuming I make it that long). Maybe this is vain, but I am absolutely in love with the idea of a diving into a decades-long retrospective of my own life, and these logs enable that for the parts of my life that are missing from photo albums and reminiscing with friends. They capture the more individual and introverted ways that I choose to spend my time.

In my last post I talked about an entire elaborate setup that I had to create to filter media for myself because I am simply interested in too many things.

This post, however, is about all of those interesting things that have found their way into my life, my time, and my mind.

My logs are a museum filled with exhibits, each of which were at one point an object of wonder, joy, or desire for me. These museums are wonderous places to visit, revisit, and add to.

I don't want to soapbox too much, because I acknowledge that the appeal for this kind of thing is far from universal, but I feel compelled to speak to the people out there who might see something of themselves in this post — the ones for whom all of what I've shared comes across as cool rather than compulsive.

If you're someone for whom this kind of thing sounds wonderful, then I recommend starting it up for yourself. The best time to do so is right now. Even if you can't backfill all that has come before, you can at least keep up from this point forward, and time is only ever moving forward.

Keeping up with my logs has been something I've been doing for fifteen years now, and I'm still regularly grateful to my old self for making that decision. I can't wait to see what my logs will look like in another fifteen. After all, there are so many amazing things out there, and that statement will continue to become even more true over time.

I’m so excited — and so lucky —that I to get to experience that, and I look forward to being able to look back on all that amazingness.