Readers Uncovered – How do you track and record your thoughts about your reading?

by Jessica Anderson on September 20, 2010

in Features, Readers Uncovered

Readers Uncovered

Readers Uncovered features readers and their answers to tough reading questions.

HOW DO YOU TRACK AND RECORD YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT YOUR READING – A BLOG, A READING JOURNAL, A SPREADSHEET, ETC.?

I was spending one early evening at a café when a friend of mine came up to me to say hello. He also said, “You take reading very seriously, don’t you?” The usual reading paraphernalia littered my table: Two pens, a pencil, a highlighter, my little red notebook, two Post-it flags, and, of course, books—and at that point, three of them.

Pre-blogging days had me reading with a pen—really can’t help that. What notes I had then were a handful of sentences about my post-read impressions [usually tucked into the day’s journal entries]. But I wanted to have a more reliable log of my reading and my opinions on the books I read. That was one of the reasons why I put up the book blog.

Now, I keep a small red notebook exclusive to my book thoughts: I rant about them, squeal senselessly, curse the author for awesomeness / mehness / ickiness. I take notes as I read. I take notes before I read—expectations, things like that—and after. This, plus what I scribble on my books’ pages—marked for easy reference with a Post-it flag—are largely what my blog posts are made of. Sometimes, I type them out as they are. Most times, I elaborate on those notes. And I always recopy excerpts—it doesn’t have to be in line with whatever thrust there is of the “review,” but they have to touch me in some way: language, sentiment, the fuzzies. More on my note-taking in this post.

And to carry this OCD Tendencies further: I have a spreadsheet too. It’s a combination of reading log and posting schedule. I try not to let anyone see it on my laptop, since it usually draws bewilderment, then horror.

-Sasha from Sasha and the Silverish


I keep a reading journal in which I record my thoughts and my reaction to the passages that I in particular resonate with. In addition to the Moleskine notebook, I have post-its handy when I read. How you had the frustration that you forgot to write down page number to a great sentence? Every now and then I jot down references to a sentence or a passage that would become supportive in formulating my argument in the review. When I finish a book, I would have about three to four sticky posts full of references inserted between the pages and a page of notes on Moleskine. From there I compose about two pages full of coherent thoughts that become the draft of a review.

The draft in my notebook forms the backbone of what appears on my blog. I revise what I have written when I type up the review on the blog template. In other word, the book reviews you read are fruits of the labor. They have been subjected to various stages of brainstorming, critical thinking, writing, revising, and editing. The blog becomes a platform on which I interact with other readers on specific books and book-related topics. If the notebook keeps a record of my conversation with the book, the blog is a continuous update of those thoughts as readers renew my impression. Together the notebook and the blog complete my history as a reader.

-Matt from A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook


I started my blog so I could keep a record of what I’ve read and my thoughts about those things. Soon after I finish reading something, and sometimes even as I’m reading it, I make notes in a word document on my computer. Then, when I get some time (usually about an hour or more), I develop those notes in to a post. I like to look for the themes of what I’ve read and I often write about my impressions of the characters, setting, or writing style, rather than just summarizing plot. So far, I’ve enjoyed having my blog to go back and review my past reading!

-Rebecca from Rebecca Reads


Recently I’ve gone through something of a revolution with regards to how I track my thoughts while I’m reading, and it all centres around a change in my feelings towards the books themselves. I wouldn’t say that I’ve lost any of my reverence towards books (I was brought up to have the utmost respect for books and to keep them in pristine condition), but I now believe that it is absolutely OK to record one’s thoughts and feelings in the margins of book, provided it’s all done in pencil, and provided of course, that one owns the book in the first place.

This huge paradigm shift began for me after I read an essay by Anne Fadiman, from her wonderful collection EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER. The essay is entitled, ‘Never Do That to a Book’, and it focuses on the differences between treating a book with absolute reverence vs treating the book merely as a ‘vessel’ for the words contained within i.e. it’s the words themselves that are sacrosanct and the not the physical component parts that carry those words.

Fadiman calls this difference in book affection – courtly love vs carnal love, and she puts up an excellent case as to why carnal love i.e. treating the book merely as a carrier for words, is more important than treating a book with absolute carefulness. It all comes down to one thing – ‘engagement’. Fadiman believes that the reader can engage with the author and his/her words a lot more successfully, and a lot more intimately, than one can with a separate notebook etc. And after trialling this more intimate method of recording one’s thoughts I’ve found that to be absolutely the case; that showing carnal love for a book is infinitely more rewarding than keeping one’s books as though they’ve never been read..

There is one other reason why I believe that marginalia is one of the best methods for recording one’s thoughts while reading, and this all comes down to legacy. If you’ve ever read H. J. Jackson’s MARGINALIA: READERS WRITING IN BOOKS, then you will know of the value that can come to future generations from those in history who have scribbled in the margins of books. And while I don’t ever consider that my scribbles will ever be as valuable as say those of Darwin, they will be of some worth to my own future family members. What better legacy to leave one’s future generations, than a library filled with the thoughts and feelings of an ancestor?

Of course I don’t always write in every book I own because some are way too precious to me to even think about doing that. And when this is the case I use the usual reader methods of recording my thoughts i.e. a physical notebook (always Moleskine), Post-it Notes, annotating electronically (via TabletPC or iAnnotatePDF on the iPad) etc. And there’s always my blog too of course. And if you follow RobAroundBooks then you will know that I have a rather unique (some may say extraneous) method of reviewing.

My method for reviewing books all stems from my belief that every time one reads a book, one goes on a journey. Just as one goes on a new and unfamiliar physical journey – where new sights and new discoveries and uncovered – one goes on a similar ‘virtual’ journey through a book. I believe every journey (whether physical or virtual) changes a person in some small way, and I feel it’s important to record that journey just so the changes are there to be seen.

So when it comes to books specifically, I first like to record my thoughts and feelings and my hopes and expectations before I set out on my reading ‘journey’. These I call ‘forethoughts’ and they stand as a good comparison to the post I write up when I get to the end of a book (these I call my ‘afterthoughts’), when my knowledge of that book is 100%.

Of course, the journey itself is always more interesting than the destination, and so I also record my thoughts and feelings while I read, for all to see in the pages of my virtual online Reading Journal. More often than not the notes I record on my online journal are the condensed notes that I’ve taken from the marginalia that I’ve scribbled in the book itself, or from my physical reading journal. Engineering-wise I’ve found it to be a difficult transition taking my physical notes into the virtual (I’m quite random and haphazard in my note-taking), and as such my online Reading Journal remains a perpetual work-in-progress.

-Rob from RobAroundBooks

Thank you to our lovely panelists. Doesn’t this just make you want to go read – and take notes? Check out the next edition of Readers Uncovered, when these astute panelists answer this question: What is the book you remember most fondly from childhood, and why?

Okay, they answered the question; now it’s your turn. How do you track and record your thoughts about reading?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion (Kathy) September 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Wonderful post! Rob has me wanting to scribble in my books, which generally horrifies me.

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Erin September 20, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Wow, this post is great! I am one of those people who cannot stand the thought of folding the corner of a page, much less writing in it! But now I am intrigued. My current system, which I’m beginning to find inadequate, is to scribble page numbers and brief thoughts on the piece of paper I’m using as a bookmark. I need to find a more organized system that I will actually use, and these wonderful panelist responses have given me much to consider!

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Shelley September 20, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Although I write about some people who were just marginally educated and literate, yet they respected books, and it always brightens my day when I pass by two people who are talking about a book.

It’s another way of us recording (out loud) our thoughts!

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Shelley (Book Clutter) September 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

For me it often depends on the book. Some books call for extensive note-taking, whether in the margins (usually in pencil) or in a small notebook that I keep with the book, and others I don’t want to take notes–I just want to kick back and enjoy the ride.

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Elizabeth September 21, 2010 at 2:52 am

Yes, I go along with most of this … ‘though I suspect I’m never likely to reach the spreadsheet stage. I also jot down words or intertextual content that is unfamiliar to me so that I can look it up later.

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Yvonne Barlow September 21, 2010 at 4:26 am

I think we were raised to revere books, but the sense of ownership grows with purchase – the book is firmly mine! I like to mark my emotions in a book and, if I have no pen and like a piece of writing, then I turnover the top corner. I turn over the bottom corner if I don’t like the text.

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Jessica September 21, 2010 at 10:57 am

Kathy – I thought the same thing after reading Rob’s comments. I wrote in all of my books in college but haven’t been able to since. I think it would be cathartic. Though, I had a friend who wouldn’t loan out his books because he wrote in them and they were kind of like journals for him.

Erin – I have the same system, but I often find myself reading without a pen or in bed where writing is inconvenient. I need a better system too. Last night, I had to resort to dog-earring a book, so I wouldn’t forget a great paragraph.

Shelley – I agree. Talking about books is almost as important as writing about them. I think that book bloggers exist because there is a shortage of people in our lives with whom we can really talk about books.

Shelley (Book Clutter) – For the most part, I like to just give myself up and enjoy the ride. But then, when I go to write a review, I usually wish I had at least jotted a few things down. It’s a balancing act.

Elizabeth – Sadly, I’ve already reached the spreadsheet stage. It’s like I’m panicked that I’ll lose my reading record, so I have it in several places. I need to jot down unfamiliar words as I’m reading. I can usually get it from the context, but it’s so much richer to look up the actual meaning.

Yvonne – I like the top corner vs. bottom corner system. I might have to adopt that in the few books I feel okay dog-earring. I like the idea of marking my emotions in books, I just have to get over my need to keep books pristine.

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Michele@A Reader's Respite September 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm

What a great discussion! Love this! And yes, Rob has me re-thinking about writing in my books.

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Rebecca Reid September 22, 2010 at 7:24 am

Thanks for including me with such wonderful panelists!

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Sasha September 24, 2010 at 6:35 am

I’m only dropping by now — thank you for featuring me. And it’s wonderful to take a peek into the habits of fellow bloggers. Also: I’m all for writing on the pages! Things get more interesting with the reread. I recently took a peek at a book that read during high school. It revealed a lot about myself then, and my preoccupations — sometimes, the scribbles have nothing to do with the page they’ve been scribble on, haha. [I try to be more conscientious with the relevance of my marginalia nowadays. :p]

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Blake Griffin September 25, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Excellent idea for a feature. I think I’ll borrow it. :)

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Rob September 30, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Hi all,
Like Rebecca and Sasha I thought I should drop in to Jessica’s excellent blog not only to thank her for featuring me, but to also thank you all for your wonderful replies.

Kathy/Michelle, I’m glad I’ve got you both at least thinking a bit differently about writing in your books. It’s a huge step to take if your not used to doing such a thing, but trust me the connection you seem to get with the text is well worth it. I hope you both take that big step!
Warmest regards
Rob

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