Somerset Maugham and my Addiction to Spreadsheets

Back in 1994, after getting through about 30 pages of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale, I realized that I had read it before. As a result, I began keeping a log of all of the books that I finished. I had a blank journal where I kept track of the title, author, and the date I finished each book. I loved watching the pages fill up and comparing what I was reading at the moment to what I finished a year earlier. Looking back at the titles on the list conjured up memories about where I was and what my life was like when I read a particular book. I finished Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone on a gorgeous sunny September afternoon in 1997 while lying on the grass in the Place des Vosges in Paris. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was finished on a frigid January day in Minneapolis while I was on winter break from graduate school. I finished Love in the Time of Cholera while I was lying in a hammock overlooking the Pacific on the island of Kaua’i. These are welcome associations I doubt I would make if it weren’t for the list.

As much as I love this handwritten log, over a decade of entries made it hard to gather information from the list quickly. I had a devil of a time trying to figure out which of Anita Brookner’s many novels I had already read. So I decided to enter all of the data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. And so the mania began. Once the information was entered into a spreadsheet I could instantly sort the list to figure out which of my favorite author’s still have books out there that I haven’t read yet. Sadly, I have already read all of Maugham, Forster, and the late Carol Shields and almost finished Iris Murdoch’s prolific output. Happily, I have a whole lot of Trollope to go and Ward Just, Anita Brookner, Ann Patchett are still alive and writing.

I still keep the handwritten log–there is nothing I like more than adding a title–but now I also add each book to the spreadsheet. In fact, I actually get pleasure from the act of adding data to the spreadsheet. It is busy work that I find deeply satisfying.

Since I started the book spreadsheet I have also created one for every concert and opera that I have been to, one that lists every work of music contained in my 350+ classical CD collection, one that organizes music festivals I want to go to, and even one that indexes all of my favorite recipes by category and tells me which cookbook contains the recipe. Perhaps my magnum opus, is the spreadsheet I created when I was trying to decide which city to move to once I finished my planing degree at Cornell. That spreadsheet has 13 cities and about 22 categories of ratings. Everything from weather, to average airfares to Europe, to the quality of each city’s symphony. Each category was weighted by priority and totalled to give me a city ranking. It was a joy to behold, helped me make my relocation decision, and has proven accurate five years later.

This weekend I plan to create a spreadsheet of all the places I have travelled to.

It’ll be a hoot. You should give it a try.

The Best City in the USA

I have spent the better part of an hour trying to come up with just the right kind of clever angle to put on this post. Being an urban plannner, I feel I should present all kinds of deep nuance to explain my fascination with Portland, Oregon. But the bottom line is that no clever angle could really convey my enthusiasm for this rain-soaked gem in the Pacific Northwest.

As a planner, I have heard for years how Portland is the holy grail of city and regional planning in the United States. Not a day went by in graduate school that someone didn’t cheer for (or jeer at) Oregon’s 1970s groundbreaking law mandating urban growth boundaries for all its 241 urban areas. Finally, one weekend last November I had the chance to see the place for myself. It lived up to all of my expectations. The impact of the urban growth boundary is a wonderful, vibrant, walkable city. Even the constant rain and gray didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I made a return trip a few weeks ago with my partner who is a big fan of the glamour and pace of much larger cities. I was a bit worried that he might find it all a little sleepy–that my urban planning lenses were making the place much more interesting than it really is. Much to my delight and surprise, he loved the place as much as I do. Perhaps the only real difference between us is that he would qualify “The Best City in America” by inserting the word small before city.

I don’t mind this because I never include New York City in any comparison, the place is just too damn fabulous and unique to be compared to any other–and once you remove New York from the discussion Portland rises right to the top of my list. I don’t think it is my urban planner’s bias that makes me feel like the success of Portland can actually be attributed to its wise land use. So often I go to American cities and just wish I could squeeze all the great things about the metro area into the core of the city and generously sprinkle it with housing, green space, services, and shopping (even for groceries). Imagine how much more dynamic Cleveland would be if all of those empty lots downtown contained Severance Hall, or the Cleveland Institute of Arts, or condos, or streetfront retail, or anything. Imagine how lively Minneapolis (or even Chicago) would be if its downtown loop had better integration between its housing, retail, and office districts. What if the fabulous Asian markets and restaurants in northern Virginia were in Washington DC’s Chinatown instead? What if Seattle didn’t have that hideous freeway separating its downtown from its residential neighborhoods? What if pigs could fly…?

Still, Portland is about more than its land use patterns, and it is certainly more than the sum of its parts. Its public transport is second to none, it has the legendary Powell’s books, it has a lively arts scene, great shopping, great restaurants, great neighborhoods, a great physical setting, great proximity to the mountains and some of the most amazing coastland in the world, and has beautiful agricultural lands within 10 miles of the city line. Its corporate architicture is mundane at best, but its smaller scale arhitecture is quite interesting and has a vernacular flair. In fact, the best thing about Portland is that it knows what it is and it does it really well. Even its provincialism is more like a contented self-awareness then the boosterism or narrow world view found in many other cities that seem to care more about being something they are not, rather then being happy with what they are.

In general I can find something to love in almost any city. It just so happens that Portland puts it all together in a way that makes it a very special place, and to me, the best city in the USA.