How to keep a reading journal

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In August 2014, my husband gave me a black Moleskine that launched a continuous habit of notebook-keeping. It started as a general mix of ideas, observations, to-do lists and quote-copying; by the end of the first volume (and yes I do feel absurdly lofty talking about “volumes” of my notebooks), it had turned into something that you might more strictly call a reading journal or a commonplace book (if you were Victorian-minded), and if you’re a reader, I strongly recommend you keep one too.

Here’s why: I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

First, you need a sturdy, portable notebook – because your notebook is going to be with you everywhere you might be reading, and you don’t want it to fall apart. That means your ideal notebook should be:

  • Hardback
  • Lined
  • Stitched, not glued, and able to open flat
  • Small enough to carry easily but big enough to write in easily (A5 is perfect)
  • Have an elastic strap to stop it flapping open and getting damaged in your bag (you could just use an elastic band, but you’d probably lose it, or remember the elastic band and forget your pen)
  • Have a ribbon sewn into the binding to mark your page

The best notebook in the world is the Leuchtturm 1917 medium, which has numbered pages, a table of contents, perforated back pages in case you need to rip a sheet out for some reason (you vandal), two (two!) bookmarks in contrasting colours (one for the page I’m currently writing on, one for the section I’m referring to for work), archiving labels, and a pocket at the back for receipts and things. But you can fill in your own page numbers and make your own table of contents in any notebook, and if you do, it will look something like this:

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When you’re numbering the pages, you can get away with just doing the odd numbers (see below), and obviously you don’t have to do the whole notebook at once: putting them in as you go works fine.

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You can see above that I used to date individual entries, but that isn’t very practical – a day’s reading might only turn up one line worth transcribing. Now I just date the top of the pages when I start them, as below (this is a section on The Bell Jar, which turns out to have an awful lot of lines worth transcribing):

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When I make a note, I always:

  • Start with the page number
  • Place direct quotes within double quote marks (some people like single quote marks but they are perverts)
  • Introduce my own thoughts or observations with a dash
  • Put my own clarifications or suspension marks for omissions within square brackets (if the quote itself uses square brackets, though, be careful to mark which were in the original and which you added yourself)
  • Write in black uni-ball rollerball medium because I am very relaxed and fun about this

You don’t have to make notes on everything (though it’s nice to at least have the title and a few observations recorded); you won’t find something worth noting every time you read. But I’ve learned that it’s good to scratch down anything that catches your eye, rather than spend ages trawling back through later on when you realise that the intriguing detail you almost copied out was actually the foundation of a critical pattern of imagery, or the seed of the author fatally undermining their own argument, or something.

Reading is always active, never passive. Words don’t simply float through your eyes and take up residence in your head: you make meaning from them, fit them into the world of everything else you know, find resonances that maybe even the author could not have realised were there. Yes, keeping a notebook is more faff than just reading; but it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and the satisfaction of seeing your notebooks fill up is more an incentive to read than an obstruction.

When you go back later and revisit your notes on a particular book, you’ll find that you’ve made your own version of the text, partial and overlaid with your own thoughts and ideas. I keep other journals (the to-do lists, ideas and observations now go into a bullet journal), but the reading notebooks are the ones that really matter. Try one.