How we organise our memories of the year just gone

Taking Stock

Fourth in a series exploring the relationship between individuals, memories and memorials. For more information, please visit

In my last blog post I talked about memories and traditions, and in particular Christmas traditions. As ever, New Year’s follows quickly upon the holidays and in this post I talk about how we seem to stop, round about New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, and take stock. Here at Echoleft we are interested in ways in which we organise memories of our lives. What do we do when we stop and reflect on the year that’s just gone? What helps us remember what we might otherwise forget?

With all of the different ways we approach memories, I shouldn’t have been surprised that some people track their lives in very systematic ways.

We probably have photos and video of the big events of the past year: birthdays, graduations, weddings, holidays at home and abroad. We’ve likely written a few lines about most of these special occasions on one social media platform or another. We may well have captured plenty more mundane — but still memorable — occasions as well. Your new haircut, for instance, or that day you were home sick from work, or the day you saw a hot air balloon in the sky on your drive home or to pick up the kids.

We note these ephemeral events as they occur, but how likely is it that we track them in any systematic way? We have our one birthday; if we’re lucky, our one big holiday; and we can almost certainly, if we put our minds to it, remember how many weddings we attended. I’m a big believer in the daily to-do list, but I couldn’t tell you how many parties I went to last year, or how many times I went for coffee with friends, or how often I talked to my grandmother on the phone (less than I should have, let’s face it). I could guess at the numbers if I went back and looked at my calendar, but I can’t say it ever occurs to me to do so. With all of the different ways we approach memories, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised that some people do track their lives in a more systematic way.

Personal analytics, the name given to the tracking and organising of daily minutiae, came up when I was talking to a friend about end-of-the-year traditions. Some people go to New Year’s Eve parties, or make New Year’s resolutions, or both. Some people, like Nicholas Felton, are more innovative. Felton has been collecting data from his everyday goings-on for several years now and uses it to produce ‘annual reports’ of his life. Intrigued, I had a look. His reports are striking, strangely beautiful, and — to me, at least — almost entirely incomprehensible.

All maps need legends, otherwise they are just pretty puzzles. Our stories about our memories are the missing link between ourselves and everyone else.

It’s probably because I’m not much of a visual thinker, but I don’t know if what Felton does — as interesting as it is — would help me to remember what I would otherwise forget. I did some thinking, however, and I realised that I do track some personal data. I could tell you, for instance, how many books I’ve read in the past ten years. I know that I read more fiction than non-fiction and that I’m a compulsive re-reader.

My data, though, is interesting to me mostly because I can pull stories from it, stories about myself and about other people. When I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007 it was because my grandmother had loaned me her copy — before she’d even read it — so I could finish the series before I moved abroad. I remember the lively book club discussion my colleagues and I had about Life of Pi, and when I see Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity on my list, it makes me think of all the friends I’ve recommended it to who love it as much as I do.

Both Felton and I can arrange our personal data any way we like — in charts, in lists, in a timeline, even — but that data can never, will never, explain itself. All maps need legends, otherwise they are just pretty puzzles. Our explanations are the missing link between ourselves and everyone else. Felton calls what he does ‘curated knowledge’. He says as well that people have ‘only learned what I’d like them to know about me’.
I would argue that if we want people to truly know us, we need to be able to tell them stories about our data. Echoleft is a place for us to tell our friends and family what is going on behind the scenes in our family photographs, our social media entries, our daily lives. It’s as public or as private as we want it to be, and we can tell the stories of loved ones who have passed away as well as our own stories.

I’m still going to keep my book list in 2014 — it seems a shame to let it go after all this time — but my New Year’s resolution is to blog more often about what I’m reading, about the connections I’m making with other people through what I read. When I have children, they’re not going to care that I re-read Norma Johnston’s Keeping Days series a year or two years from now. They’re going to care that the books that they’re just discovering were beloved by their mother and grandmother before them. They will care, I hope, that they themselves are now part of this reading tradition.


Nicholas Felton’s Annual Reports:

Quote from Nicholas Felton: