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.

Project Calm | Deep reading

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Why should we read? The magazine Project Calm set me the task of explaining how books can sharpen your brain, strengthen your sympathies and make you more resilient (and yes, I do prescribe strong doses of Middlemarch for all conditions). The magazine is on sale now, and features beautiful illustrations by Jody Thomas alongside my words.  

project-calmFor as long as novels have existed, there have been moralists to warn of their dangers. Late Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason chided that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel, to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.” Recent research, though, has claimed that rather than inducing a slow death, reading books can actually keep you alive: a study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that those who read a book for 30 minutes a day had a 23-month survival advantage, regardless of their wealth, education, health or sex. And fascinatingly, this advantage was specific to books. No other reading material did so much good for its readers.

Buy issue 2 of Project Calm to read the full feature or read a sampler of the magazine

Harder than Latin or Greek

He turned away; he didn’t feel he could bear it. He was terribly afraid that happiness might be a habit, or a quality knitted into the temperament; or it might be something you learn when you’re a child, a kind of language, harder than Latin or Greek, that you should have a good grasp on by the time you’re seven. What if you haven’t got that grasp? What if you’re in some way happiness-stupid, happiness-blind? It occurred to him that there are some people, ashamed of being illiterate, who always pretend to others that they can read. Sooner or later they get found out, of course. But it is always possible that while you are valiantly pretending, the principles of reading will strike you for the first time, and you are saved. By analogy, is it possible that while you, the unhappy person, are trying out some basic expressions – the kind of thing you get in phrasebooks for travellers – the grammar and syntax of this neglected language are revealing themselves, somewhere at the back of your mind. That’s all very well, he thought, but the process could take years. He understood Lucile’s problem: how do you know you will live long enough to be fluent?

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety, p. 322

Paperhouse reads: Bad Science

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My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.

That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.

How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.

And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.

Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.

But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.

For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.

¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.

Mags not dying, just a bit poorly

Magculture linked to a Salon feature arguing that the magazine isn’t doomed, it’s just been badly mishandled. According to the writer (Gabriel Sherman), publishers aggressively launched titles during the “bubble years” (is that we’re calling the last decade now?) to exploit new advertising markets, but without cultivating the standards that build lasting readerships:

a closer look at the types of magazines that have closed reveals a more nuanced and, in many respects, hopeful portrait of the magazine business. According to a list compiled by Advertising Age, titles that have shut down in the past year come from the shelter, technology, travel, luxury, and teen categories. The reason for each category’s challenges are obvious, from a meltdown in the housing sector to teenagers’ wholesale abandonment of print for Facebook and Twitter.

As someone who’s pretty keen for people to carry on buying magazines so that some of the magazines will hopefully pay me to write for them, I don’t feel totally consoled by the suggestion that it’s ‘just’ the teenagers who are deserting the news-stands: if teenagers aren’t buying mags now, then what’s going to make them start in time to replace the older readers who’ll be dying off? And similarly, it’s possible that the tech audience is just out at the front of a movement into reading online, and the recession is masking a much more permanent shift.

Still, the failed mags gibbeted by Advertising Age do seem to have been mostly aimed at conspicuous consumers, and the fact that so many were diffusion titles – jimmying an established brand into a new marketplace – backs up Sherman’s thesis. And obviously, I’d really like this part to be true:

the current downturn can be good for publishers. Magazines still offer an unsurpassed ability to marry literary ambitions with deep reporting, photography, and visual design. In this new media age, people talk about the importance of transforming readers into “communities.” Magazines have never had a community problem. Great magazines have built enduring relationships with their readers that Facebook and Tumblr still aspire to. But in a race to grow their businesses, publishers put advertising first and editorial excellence second.

Magazines still retain emotional capital, and publishers need to remember that they’re not in the advertising-delivery business. If a magazine can speak directly to the reader, advertising dollars will follow. Titles launched to capitalize on a booming market segment will never survive over the long haul.