Reading records

I’ve kept a careful record of the books I’ve read all my life. What does this say about me?

Rediscovering her childhood reading lists made books journalist Sarah Shaffi reflect on the reader she was – and has become.

Twenty years ago, Spiller's Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) was on the radio all the time, Bring It On was showing in cinemas, and I, aged 15, was reading Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and a book adaptation based on episodes of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

None of those books made a particularly lasting impact on me, so it's not that I remember reading them. But I know that I did thanks to a handwritten list I made of books I'd read.

These eight sides of A4 lined paper – numbered so I'll never get them out of order – lay forgotten in a random pile of paper until a recent clearout led me to rediscover them. And when I did, I realised what I'd found was more than just a list of books and an insight into my reading habits, it was also a document about what I was doing and feeling, about the person I was, and the person I hoped to become.

Handwritten reading lists.
Pages from the handwritten reading list.

I can't tell you exactly when I began to record the books I'd read, but the evidence (Virginia Andrews, John Grisham and Laurie Lee butt up against Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl) suggests it was from childhood right through to my teens. It includes an eclectic mix of children’s books, YA novels and adult fiction and non-fiction. 

I was an avid reader as a child, but didn’t own a lot of books. Luckily, I had parents who took me to the local library every week, and much of this list is a reflection of what I picked up from there. In other words: there were lots and lots of classic children's books, from titles by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Johanna Spyri and more.

But it's clear from my list that I darted around the local library's shelves quite a bit in search of my next read, and in search of myself. 

I stumbled my way into more 'grown up' books, and some of them proved a shock

It was at the library that I discovered Sweet Valley High, Francine Pascal's iconic series about twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. My list features around 30 Sweet Valley titles, from both the original high school series and its university follow-up. They're a formative part of my reading experience and I remember loving reading about the Wakefields and their friends, scouring the library's shelves for one I hadn’t read. But seeing the titles written down in one place (and knowing that I read many, many more I didn't include) brings up mixed emotions. At the time I didn't realise it, but now I know that I read so many Sweet Valley High books because – as a tween – I thought their blonde, skinny, popular, glossy protagonists were the epitome of beautiful and successful, and were what I should aspire to be.

I'd soon worked my way through all the Sweet Valleys I could get my hands on, and my reading lists show another of my reading obsessions: the queen that is Judy Blume. In Blume's books – especially Here's to You, Rachel Robinson and my battered, second-hand copy of Deenie – I found more realistic stories about girls in that awkward transition between child and teenager. As a young reader, I used to think the romances were the best part of Blume's novels. Now, I realise that I loved them and read them over and over because they showed teenage girls learning to accept who they were and find their place in the world. 

I grew up at a time when the Young Adult label could only be applied to a handful of books (including the Dawson's Creek box set of books I still have, and Melvin Burgess' Junk, which features on my list as I read it aged 13 and then did an oral book report on it). This meant that instead of transitioning into adult literature slowly, I stumbled my way into more "grown up" books, and some of them proved a shock.

And so it was that I read a number of disturbing novels by Virginia Andrews (my list shows both the Cutler and Casteel series, but I know my introduction was via the frankly weird cult classic Flowers in the Attic). Perhaps there was something about the pulpy covers and teen protagonists that I thought I'd love and that wouldn't be too different from what I've previously read; what I got instead was a rapid introduction to some very, very dark topics.  

I see a child and a teenager not bound by any one genre or what anyone else thinks

In my search for adult books I also devoured – there is no other word for it – a number of Jeffrey Archer's tomes, taken from my dad's bookshelves. He's not an author I would pick up now, but his books taught me how a good story can sweep you away, even when you're a 13-year-old British Pakistani girl reading a book by a 50-year-old white man. I cycled through Danielle Steel (just the one book, Malice, which I picked up based on its then-lurid yellow cover), Colin Forbes (I think I read almost all of his Tweed series) and John Grisham (lots and lots of John Grisham). I tried literary fiction in the form of Alex Garland's The Beach, crime with Ruth Rendell and non-fiction with Marya Hornbacher's Wasted and Jean Sasson's Princess (bought by my uncle in an airport while we waited to pick my dad up; I read most of the book in the car).

Looking at the list, at the strange journey I took through books, I see a child and a teenager willing to experiment with reading, not bound by any one genre or what anyone else thinks. That child, that teenager, was just searching for a good story, for something she could see herself in. 

I don't think at that time I was completely successful at finding books I could see myself in. Although my records show I read Rukshana Smith's Salt on the Snow, Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves and Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, nearly everything else on the list is by and about white people. I was bound by what the library had and what I could find in charity shops and boot fairs, and those places were bound by what publishers chose to publish. But there was still a freedom in what I read, in how I skipped between genres and authors, something which got lost as I grew older and was confined by books I was studying at school or for my degree, and then for work.

When I found my book list from 2000, it was a few years after I'd started keeping regular records again, initially just so I could remember what I'd read for work (as a books journalist) and what I'd read for pleasure. But of course, much like that original handwritten list, my new lists (this time a little more sophisticated than sheets of A4 paper) actually tell me a lot about who I was when I started working in and around publishing, who I wanted people to think I was, and who I've become. 

There was still a freedom in what I read, in how I skipped between genres and authors

My first "new" lists show a lot of big releases, mostly by white authors, that I read because I felt obliged to. At the time, I thought I liked them, but looking back I can see that I probably wouldn't pick up a lot of them now. I read those books to please the people I was meeting every day for work, to fit into an industry that thought there were certain books I should read and that seemed to value some genres above others. In some ways, I was back to being that tween girl who read Sweet Valley High because she thought they contained the perfect image of who she was supposed to be.

But now, with five years of these lists under my belt, I can see the journey I've taken as a (sometimes-professional) reader. I still read a lot of about-to-be-released and new books, but only the ones I want. You'll find the acronym 'DNF' (for 'did not finish') a lot more often, as I've grown more confident in putting down books I don't like. My lists are skewed towards women, and I read a lot of Black and brown writers. Some of the biggest books of the last few years are noticeably absent, because instead I read lesser-known books that I knew I'd love and relate to more. I've finally found the books I see myself in, and they form a nice Venn diagram with the books I want to read.

Younger me would look at my current reading lists and be happy that her search paid off, that after all those years of looking, all of those books randomly picked up from the library shelf, I've finally found books that acted as both a window AND a mirror. And current me looks back at that list I created as a teenager and is thankful I kept it, because every time I look at it I'm reminded of the adventurous, experimental, unbiased reader I was, and should always aspire to be. 

Main image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

What did you think of this article? Let us know by emailing

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more