On Reading Journals

Pros and Cons

A lot of books on the act of reading will suggest a reading journal. In fact, a lot of books on writing will suggest a writing journal. A lot of books on swimming will suggest a swimming journal. A lot of books on sex will suggest a swimming journal.

You see, if someone is of the mindset to write about an act, they are often the sort that likes to chronicle the act. For these people, the very act is a method of recording. Of course they are going to be all for keeping journals of the activities; what do you think they printed for you to read?

For the rest of us, journaling our life is a hit and miss activity. It often increases our analysis, forces introspection, and gives us an easy to go to source to jog our memories. Of course, it breaks us out of the mindset of the action we are in (with the possible exceptions of the writing journal, and, if you are into "dirty notes" possibly the sex journal). Besides that, we often find that we do not want to over analyze the text unless it is for a class. If we do not like the book, we might not ever return to it again and if we like it then we probably would like to experience it without that sense of it being too read-worn.

A reading journal is up to you. I find that some books make use of them better. Doctorow's City of God became a lot more alive to me because of the journal. It was impossible to get under my thumb. But his the March rejected a journal, being a lot better as a purely read book. Likewise, Chekov's The Steppe gained no pleasures in having a reading journal; while Danielewski's House of Leaves probably would have been a lot better with one.

I guess the common line, here, is that a book with a storyline more complex than is eas to be held in basic memory will benefit from a journal that can keep its disparate section apart, while a book that has a simplified cast and set of themes might be helped by a journal which gives you some additional time to ponder the cast of characters and the plot points. It will help to reinforce your memory.

Anything less than this, though (except maybe for a class assignment), I would say avoid the journal because it is an interrupt to the act of reading.

Unless you REALLY like the book and would like to recall parts of it without having to thumb through. I guess that would work.

Types of Journals

There are all sorts of journal types out there. My favorite is the single sheet of paper (maybe a couple, stapled together) that I use as a makeshift bookmark. As I am reading, I can whip it out, make a couple of notes (usually noting a page, a basic "header" and then a short but detailed note). Not only is this less cumbersome, it is easy to file away later if you want to keep track of it.

The second type is my least favorite type: the notebook. Some love to have a notebook where they will write down all their favorite little parts of a book. I am not one for the memories, though. I bank on the fact that if I liked it once I will like it again and if I didn't like it once, then I won't go back to it. I have no need to keep a chronicle of my reading since I like the pure act of reading. If you do want one of these, though, there are several advantages. They tend to offer more pages to keep notes, so your notes can be more detailed. Also, they are kept through several books. Though you will have to "lug" it around with you, it will enable you to compare books and to quick sort through previous books to draw out lines of conclusion and the like.

There is, of course, your computer or electronic device to store text. It has some advantages, in that you can use whatever text program you like (how about a database?!?) to organize things, and it can get as complex as you want it to be. It also allows you to store a huge number of notes in a relatively simple manner. You will have to write stuff down in an interim format and then transfer it, though, or read it in front of your computer (which is even more obtrusive to the reading process than it sounds). Or, you can recall it all, which brings to question why you have a journal.

The last way, and probably the best way, is to write it down in the margins of the book itself. That's what the white space is for, kind of. This is a weird one, though, and unless you are carefuly you will start out taking too scant of notes, and then end up taking way too many. Once you get past the "books are sacred" thing, you will do better with this one. Its not that hard to write stuff down as you read, either, so it doesn't break your flow all that much. One word of advice, though: take notes, do not rely on the highlighter. If all you do is highlight, you will end up forgetting why the notes were taken in the first place.

Kinds of Notes

What kind of notes should you take with a reading journal? There are all sorts. I know of one person who is all about the quotes. She will record her favorite quotes throughout and then go back and reread them.

I am more about the tracking of character to plot interface. When writing, a person will spend months or years with a set of characters and will largely tell the story through the characters' actions. I try and diagram what the characters are up to at key points and it helps me, thereotically, to understand the plot points better as well as the themes.

Plot points. Characters. Themes. Clever dialogue. There are all sorts of things to record down in a reading journal. Since one of the major reasons to have one is to increase your understanding of the novel, I would recommend writing down thos points that are very "aha!" sort of moments or are very "what?" sort of moments. I think both will help to sum up the work for you.

But, Didn't You Say You Didn't Like Them?

I did, but I know so many people that have benefitted from them, that I just had to include some suggestions that I have seen or discovered.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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