When I was 20 I had an English literature professor who insisted on the virtues of one's keeping a literary log—a chronicle of all the books read over the course of the year. All great men and women of letters did this, he said. In fact, it appeared that journal keeping was something of a prerequisite for being a man or woman of letters.

With the enthusiasm and single-mindedness that often propel us (arid render us insufferable) when we're 20, I began such a project. At the end of two months, I looked back over my entries in despair. There were at least as many Agatha Christies as there were Faulkners or Dos Passos. And when I cast my mind back to try to remember particulars of each book without referring to the brief annotations I had made, I found I could more often remember whodunit than exactly what stately,...

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