How to keep a reading journal

As many of you know, I’m big on journaling. I find it an immensely useful tool for all sorts of reasons. I have at one point or another kept various forms of journals, and now, I just sort of combine all of them as and when it suits my purpose.

This post is specifically about keeping a reading journal. I recently wrote a post about 9 reasons to keep a reading journal, so this goes further into the doing of it.

First, let’s start with a caveat: this is not the only way to keep a reading journal. As I repeatedly mention on Kaizen Journaling, there is no one way to keep any journal. The right way is what works for you. 

However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others. If you are a beginner, other people’s methods will get you started. Even if you have kept reading journals before, by looking into how other people do it, or by reading articles such as this, you may learn something new. Journaling is a process of continuous improvement, and as such, it should constantly evolve.

First, determine why you want to keep a reading journal. Your why will affect your how.

Select a journal

The first obvious question is e-journal or paper journal? While I’m always an advocate for keeping hand-written journals, when it comes to reading journals, it is a matter of why you want to keep it. If you’re keeping a reading journal for personal reasons, to keep track of what you’ve read, or simply to scribble your impressions then hand-written journals will work. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for research purposes, for a dissertation or for a big writing project, then it may be more efficient to keep an electronic reading journal.

An electronic reading journal will allow you to easily list sources, which you can use for bibliography. You can also keep track of hyperlinks for references, or for relevant reading materials. You can rearrange your notes in whichever way you need them such as by topic or by themes.

If you decide to keep a hand-written journal, you can buy a simple notebook (such as regular school books, or supermarket brand notebooks that you can buy for less than a pound), or you can go for better quality (Moleskine, Rhodia, Paperblank etc.). You can also keep a loose-leaf folder, which will allow you to rearrange your entries. you can buy ready-made reading journals which come with templates. The possibilities are numerous. Just have a browse on Amazon or go to your local stationery store.

The basics

There are some basic rules of a reading journal, which I recommend you follow, no matter what your purpose.

Always date your entries. It’s common sense really, but so many people don’t do it. If you are making an effort to keep a record of your reading, when you look back at it, you’ll want to know when you wrote it.

Our impressions are so often affected by everything that’s on in our life at a particular time. By simply writing down a date, you’ll be able to reflect back far more easily.

Another thing I highly recommend is to always write the title of the book and the author’s name. While you may think that you’ll always remember what you were talking about, trust me, you won’t (unless you’ve eidetic memory).

Add page numbers to quotes

This is optional. If you are keeping a reading journal for fun, then you don’t need to be this fastidious. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for professional/academic reasons, and will need to provide sources for any quotes used, then keeping track of page numbers next to quotes you copy will save you future time and effort.

It also gives you an option to not copy the entire quote. By just making your notes and adding a page number and paragraph number it references, you can simply find it when you need to.

Write as you read

While you are reading, pause when you come across passages or even lines that make an impression on you. You don’t need to do it with every paragraph, but you could do it at an end of the chapter, for example, and jot down your reflections and impressions.

If you wait until you finish the book, your overall feeling towards it may have changed, because by the end, we usually have all the answers. To keep an insightful reading journal, record your insights as they happen.

For example, when you begin a book, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was the book easy to get into? If not, what made you keep going?
  • Who was the first character you met?
  • What did you think of them?
  • What do you think of the tone?
  • How is the pace?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this book?
  • Why did you pick it?
  • How did you find the language?
  • Were there any glaring grammatical errors?
  • How about continuity errors?
  • How many points-of-view the writer used? Did it work for you?
  • Did you find it easy to lose yourself in the story?

As you continue reading, whenever something strikes you, stop and write about it. You don’t have to write an essay. A mere sentence or even a few words or phrases can be enough to capture your thought process. 

The End

After you’ve finished reading the whole book, write about your overall impressions. You can give it a score out of 10 if you want. Did you hate it, love it, or did it evoke a more neutral response?

What worked for you? What didn’t? Did you find anything relatable? Did you learn anything? Would you recommend this book to others?

Did the book impact you?

Some books change us or affect us profoundly. They touch us so deeply that just closing the book at the end leaves you stunned. Some books make you question things you thought you knew and your beliefs. Others change your world view by opening a door you never knew existed. Some books have the power to change a life. They have the power to change you.

What power did this book have over you? 

Have fun

This is perhaps the most important one. Don’t let this become a chore. Don’t restrict yourself by too many rules. Write whenever you want. If you skip a day or a whole book, don’t worry about it. Sometimes, you’ll just want to read for pleasure and nothing else. That’s okay.

Make the reading journal work for you, and enjoy the process.

 

9 reasons to keep a reading journal

I am a big advocate for journal keeping for all sorts of purposes. Keeping a reading journal, whether it’s because you are a student or just an independent reader or doing it for research purposes can be immensely beneficial and rewarding.

Some reasons to keep a reading journal:

To keep a log of what you’ve read

When you are a regular reader, eventually there comes a time when you can’t remember if you’ve already read something or not. For example, you’ve watched a movie based on a book, so you know the story, but you can’t remember if it’s just from the movie or if you read the book. Another instance is when you are reading a series of books which have similar titles and the same characters. Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe novels and J. D. Robb’s In Death series are good examples of this.

To keep a log of how much you’ve read

Whether you have a specific book list to get through for a project, or because you simply want to get an idea of how much you read, a reading journal will aid you. It’s also useful to figure out what are your best reading months. For example, if you are an accountant, April with end-of-the-year work is probably not your best time. But if you tend to spend a few weeks in summer lounging on the beach, you probably read a lot more. Sometimes, the reading amount changes from year to year, but if you have a fairly established routine, then you will be able to see the patterns for your best reading months.

To record your impressions

We don’t read just for the sake of reading. We read for a reason. Whether it’s for pleasure, escape, research, study, or project….we read because we want to get something out of the experience. And when you finish reading that book, you feel something. By keeping a reading journal, you are spending more time on capturing that fleeting “something”. You can record your impressions throughout your reading, but particularly after you’ve finished the book. You can figure out what the book did for you, how did it impact you, and if it changed anything.

For research

Writing a dissertation, working on your PhD, writing a book, or numerous other things that involve large quantities of research? Then you will want to keep all that information straight in your head. When you read a lot of material on the same subject, after a while, it all starts to blend together in your head. It will be difficult to remember who said what, and who was on which side of the argument. By keeping a reading journal as you read, you are not only keeping facts straight but also preserving potential sources. You will have citations ready, and all the material to mine from, without having to go back to all the books when you finally sit down to start using your research for whatever purpose.

To write an essay, article, thesis

If you have to write something based on the book, you can keep a reading journal to explore the story’s theme, it’s motifs and characters. Again, just as for research purposes, for writing purposes, having the material ready from your notes during reading, will make it a lot easier to use it for writing.

To gain an awareness of your reading taste, and the changes in them

Your reading taste will change, if not permanently then at least temporarily. Over time, as you read new material, you will be tempted to try something new, to experiment. Sometimes, other people’s recommendations or gift of books also leads us to try out something new. If you are researching a particular topic or time, that may also impact what you are reading at any given time. By keeping a reading journal, you will be able to see how your taste evolves over time, and whether or not there are any significant changes.

To strengthen your understanding of the reading material

Have you ever read something only to feel when you put the book down, you had no idea what the hell happened? It leaves you feeling annoyed, and often frustrated that you wasted so much time only to understand nothing. It may also make you feel stupid. Lack of comprehension usually has very little to do with intelligence, especially if you are a regular reader. Some books simply require closer reading than we are used to. By keeping a reading journal, you can note down your impressions, questions and confusion as you read, so that these thoughts will remain fresh in your mind. As you read further, you will able to gauge whether the text itself is answering some of your concerns or not. If it doesn’t, you can use your notes to review the book, and also to reflect on what it was that made this book difficult to understand.

To better remember what you’ve read

The act of writing things down acts as a memory aid. When you write things in your words, they sink into your subconscious better. By simply keeping a reading journal, everything you read will become more memorable.

It makes you a better writer

Being a better reader makes you a better writer. When you keep a reading journal, you are practising close reading. You are focusing on what works in a book and what doesn’t. You learn about structure and syntax. You think about how characters are portrayed, and how the plot works. It’s not an overnight process, but as you do more close reading, you will gain an instinct for doing things in your own writing that work.

These nine reasons to keep a reading journal have something that will be useful for almost everyone. But I’m sure there are more reasons that I haven’t thought of. If you know, please share them in the comments with us. 

Have you ever kept a reading journal? What tips do you have for others? 

 

What makes a better writer – deliberate practice or writing for a purpose

I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The book sucked me in. Goldberg’s voice, her passion for writing, combined with practical exercises makes this one gem of a book.

It also inspired me to read another popular writing book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. In my opinion, the popularity there is misguided. It’s about twenty pages of good stuff mixed in with a lot of waffling. So we will forget about that, and focus on Writing Down the Bones. 

Goldberg says: 

Writing practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t demand any logical form…it’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window. It is undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment. Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.

[Kindle Location 296]

That made me wonder about writing practice. Those of us who are writers, we write. All the time in many cases. I, for example, write blog posts, essays, work on freelance assignments, create courses and guides for Kaizen Journaling, and work on my fiction. Emails and letters too if we count those. But what about writing practice? I journal, so that includes a little bit of writing practice as Goldberg describes it, but even journaling has a purpose. 

So I don’t really practice writing any more. Not consciously anyway. Because I’m always trying to write something that has a purpose. That will contribute towards a project I want to complete. 

That is my practice. Because no matter how often we write, we have to keep doing it to improve. 

But what if we listen to Goldberg, and practice as she says. Practice for its own sake. We write, without purpose, without rigidity, without boundaries – mixing fact with fiction. Just deliberate practice. 

Would that help me become a better writer than writing practice that contributes to specific projects? I don’t know. 

Would it be different from journaling? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. 

Because I don’t know, I am going to try it. I’m going to do what Goldberg suggests, and set up regular time, just to practice writing. I will let you know how it works out for me. 

What about you? Do you think writing practice for its own sake is better?

 

My commonplace book and why everyone should keep one

Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.

– Emerson Journals July 1836

I previously talked about the commonplace bookwhat it is and where it comes from. My research into the concept made me motivated to start my own commonplace book.

Why do I want to keep a commonplace book

As a regular journal keeper, I had to consider how this was going to work. My journal captures my life or at least parts of it. I also have a quote journal, which while not regularly used is a place where I collect quotes. These quotes come from anywhere and are not necessarily part of my reading. As much as the idea of keeping a commonplace book appealed to me, I wanted it to be something worthwhile so that I wouldn’t stop doing it once the novelty wore off.

I want my commonplace book to be about something specific, so I decided it would be a thing I use to improve as a reader and as a writer. In essence, it will be a reading journal, but the notion of calling it a commonplace book feels far more romantic.

It differs slightly from a reading journal because the focus in the commonplace book is on other people’s words. In a reading journal, I might be too lazy to copy entire passages and may simply refer to the page numbers from the book. However, the point of a commonplace book is to write down quotes and passages you want to preserve. You make the work and the words your own, by transcribing them, and by digesting them.

Building Expertise

However, just because it’s for a specific purpose does not mean it’s limited. Think about what it would mean to be a better reader. You would read more and wide. You would read fiction and non-fiction, books, articles, essays and poems. All of these formats and ideas would bring you in contact with just about any issue humanity has faced or will face, as well as with a range of human emotions. For a reader, no book stands alone. Each story, each essay….every new sentence, it builds upon the material you have already explored. With each new piece of literature, you are not starting the journey, you are merely continuing it. 

Writing is the same. You may start a new article or a new book, but the writing ability you have today is the result of all the words you’ve written in the past. 

Your commonplace book can be a place to see this evolution for whatever topic interests you, or whatever your purpose may be. You can see where you were when you started, and how far you’ve come. Have you finally read the classics you always meant to read? Have you finally figured out just how to appreciate Virginia Woolf’s works, or understand that Oscar Wilde’s sarcasm is so powerful because it is always coated in truth? 

Your commonplace book can be a place where you continue to build your expertise in one or more area by continuously mining the best information from available resources, by recording your responses to it, and then using that information to come to your own conclusions and making personal associations.

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

– Seneca

A Tool for Personal Evolution and Assessment

A commonplace book can also be a record of personal evolution. As I read, as my taste changes, as my knowledge increases (hopefully), and as my mind gets used to making more and more connections between various pieces of literature, as well as between literature and life, this will be reflected in my commonplace book. A commonplace book, therefore, can be both a tool for self-growth and self-analysis.

One gets a pretty good idea of a man, his likes and prejudices, his quirks and manias, the variousness of his mind from reading a commonplace book. 

– William Cole

I want my commonplace book to be a place where I take the time to not only enjoy but to explore my reading, to make associations between literature and life, to learn how great writers did things, and to use it for continuous improvement. 

Are you keeping a commonplace book? What would you want to use it for?

 

A commonplace book

I hadn’t given much thought to the commonplace book until recently. I’d heard the term in passing before, usually in books, but never really stopped to consider it. However, earlier this month I was talking to a professor at my former college, who upon learning about my journaling pursuits mentioned that he didn’t keep a journal but kept a commonplace book. It was a norm, particularly in higher education when he was growing up. As he is very intelligent, and really believes in learning as a lifelong activity, I thought there must be some merit to a method he’s been employing all these years. The idea of a commonplace book took root in my mind. 

Of course any kind of new “notebook keeping” is bound to get me curious, so yesterday, I spent hours researching the finer details of the commonplace book. 

What is a commonplace book?

Originally, a commonplace book was a central place where you collected knowledge that you can refer back to at a later date. The practice began in ancient times when books were scarce, and most people wouldn’t have been able to keep a large library. In order to remember, and to be able to revisit everything they found of value, they collected it in a commonplace book.

According to Wikipedia:

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós…) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. 

The translation was obviously not done by the greatest mind since they term something “commonplace” which is actually not at all common. A commonplace book was a collection of passages and quotes that were of importance to the reader, and the entire exercise of keeping such a book required one to possess an intellectual disposition and an interest in knowledge, whether to use it or simply for its own sake. 

Over time this method of keeping a commonplace book evolved. As books became more widely available and education became accessible to more people than just the rich, a commonplace book became something that people used to collect passages and quotes from their personal reading, often organised by topics. John Milton, Emerson, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Napolean, Marcus Aurelius, W H Auden are just a few of the famous people who kept a commonplace book. As one of my Kaizen Journaling reader, Samantha Russell, pointed out on the facebook page, Sherlock Holmes refers to his commonplace book in the stories. I would love to have a peek at his commonplace book.

How is a commonplace book different from a journal

Let’s be clear: a commonplace book is not a journal.

Journal or a diary is chronological, and more centred on your life. They may include facts, introspections….or a combination of both. They may also include quotes and passages you collect. However, the whole point of a journal is that it is about you, and therefore the majority of words in it are yours. 

A commonplace book is where you collect other people’s words. Some people leave it strictly at that. Others will include their response to the things they quote, perhaps a reason for including it, or any questions it might make them ask. I’m with the latter group. I wouldn’t want to collect passages merely for the sake of collecting, because while it might make sense at the time, I may not remember five years later why it was important. 

I like how William Coe described it:

The key word for the commonplace book is “annotated.” It is not just an anthology; the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen or tells what the passages have led him to think about. A piece of prose, a poem, an aphorism can trigger the mind to consider a parallel, to dredge something from the memory, or perhaps to speculate with further range and depth on the same them. 

Should you keep a commonplace book

As soon as I did my initial research, I was sold on the idea. I wanted my own commonplace book, and I was already regretting that I didn’t know about it sooner. However, for each of us, it would be different. I want my commonplace book to serve a specific purpose because I already keep a regular journal. 

I will talk about my personal plans for the commonplace book in the next post. If you are thinking about keeping one, think about how it would serve you. The reason for doing so is to remain motivated, long term, to continue adding to it. Otherwise, you may end up with a mostly blank book.

Virginia Woolf described this ill-fate with her usual literary panache: 

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Though it may seem like an antiquated concept, keeping a collection of wisdom in the age of electronics, I think it is all the more valuable because of it. We live in an age where information is zooming past us faster than we can digest it. Something like a commonplace book gives you an opportunity to pause, reflect, and digest what you learn. 

Have you ever kept a commonplace book? Share your tips in the comments. 

 

The commonplace book: electronic or hand-written

Once I made up my mind to keep a commonplace book, the next big decision was whether to keep an electronic commonplace book or a hand-written one.

Let’s look at both:

Electronic Commonplace Book

In my research, I found that many people today do use various electronic mediums. Those who don’t mind sharing their entries, use a blog, Tumblr or similar platform. Others use applications such as Evernote. Many however simply keep a giant Word file that they keep adding to.

The main advantage of keeping an electronic commonplace book is that it is much easier to organize. If you want to look for specific topics or even specific entries, you can just use the search function and find what you are looking for. You can add multi-media, website links, pictures, and can make it interactive. It requires no physical storage space, and as long as you remember to back up your files, it can be safely maintained for a long period of time.

The disadvantage is that the temptation to cheat will always be a factor. Instead of typing up the passages and quotes, and slowly taking in every word, you may be tempted to just copy/paste the information, or type it up like you are practising for the world’s fastest secretary role. Doing so will defeat the purpose of keeping a commonplace book.

Another disadvantage, which is a big deal for me, is the lack of a truly personal touch. Yes, you can use themes or include your graphics, and of course information you include is to your taste, but the fact remains that electronic information does not have the personal touch of hand-written items. 

Hand-Written Commonplace Book

Hand-written commonplace book is the old-fashioned method. This is how it originated, and you could argue that there were no computers in those days, but the purpose behind it is the same today. By slowly and accurately copying passages and quotes from your reading material, you can take the time to savour the book. You don’t only read, but you digest the information and reflect upon it. 

As a long-term journal keeper, and having experimented with e-journaling before, I am convinced that you miss out on something special when you don’t write important things down by hand. Hand-writing is a physical act. You are making the connection between the page, your words, and your mind. By keeping a hand-written commonplace book, you make it incredibly personal, because your commonplace book will not look like anyone else’s. 

Another advantage of having a hand-written commonplace book is the tactile pleasure. Keeping a commonplace book properly is not necessarily an easy task. There will be times when you just want to read the book, and not worry about retaining information. There will be times when copying things down will feel like a chore. The more pleasurable your method of keeping a commonplace book is, the less likely you are to procrastinate or give up. 

Once I knew I had to keep a hand-written commonplace book, I looked through all the new notebooks I currently have in my house. There were no spare Moleskines, but there was a notebook identical to the one I’m using for my quote journal. I thought that would be suitable, so I even removed the plastic wrapper. But my heart wasn’t in it. It just didn’t feel right. I wanted, most of all, to have plain pages not ruled. But all my currently available notebooks were ruled. After sleeping on it, I ordered a new plain Moleskine, and felt immediately better. It was the right choice for me, because having a plain page as opposed to a ruled page is an important issue for me, as is the size and the quality of the notebook. Moleskins are one of my most favourite brands, and though I use a variety of personal journals, I have this image in my mind of keeping many identical commonplace books over the next several decades. 

Think about what matters to you, and what works for you. What will make this experience a pleasurable activity? Aesthetically pleasing, but also practical. If you intend to write on the go, don’t buy a heavy A4 notebook. Always mix creative choices with practical application.

As you can no doubt tell from the above, I’m completely on the side of the hand-written commonplace book. Unless you have a problem (medical or otherwise) which prevents you from being able to write by hand, you would gain a lot more by keeping a hand-written commonplace book as opposed to an electronic one.

Of course, keeping an electronic commonplace book is better than keeping none at all.

What do you think? Would you choose an electronic method, or go the old-fashioned way?

 

A writer’s diary: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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4 June 1831

I wonder if I shall burn this sheet of paper like most others I have begun in the same way. To write a diary, I have thought of very often at far & near  distances of time: but how could I write a diary without throwing upon paper my thoughts, all my thoughts – the thoughts of my heart as well as of my head? – and then how could I bear to look on them after they were written? Adam made fig leaves necessary for the mind, as well as for the body. And such a mind I have! So very exacting & exclusive & eager & headlong – & strong & so very very often wrong! Well! But I will write: I must write – & the oftener wrong I know myself to be, the less wrong I shall be in one thing – the less vain I shall be!

– Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

A writer’s diary: Sylvia Plath

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25 February 1957

Ted’s book of poems – The Hawk in the Rain – has won the first Harper’s publication contest under the 3 judges: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender & Marianne Moore! Even as I write this, I am incredulous. The little scared people reject. The big unscared practising poets accept. I knew there would be something like this to welcome us to New York! We will publish a bookshelf of books between us before we perish! And a batch of brilliant healthy children! I can hardly wait to see the letter of award (which has not yet come) & learn details of publication. To smell the print off the pages!

– Sylvia Plath