Keeping a Reading Journal

I’m taking up a new notebook—a second notebook that it. As it strikes me that I should maintain one place for thinking (which is my normal journal) and a reading notebook. The reading notebook is a companion to the books that I read because I’m tired of reading books, and discovering months later that I remember almost nothing about them.

This isn’t some spaced repetition thing or some kind of flash card system. I’m not a robot. I’m not interested in memorizing passages and spewing them out like a cash register spews out receipts. I just want to retain the general understanding I have when I finish a book.

For a while, a few years ago, I created a technique for remembering the audio books I listened to while walking (audio books seem incredibly vulnerable to disappearing from my memory.) The basic idea of the technique is to grab my notebook when I return from my walk and briefly scribble down the parts of the book that stood out, including in each, a description of any sights I remember seeing while listening to each part of the book.

Regarding Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness I wrote:

It’s a funny coincidence that I took the walking route I took today down Fairwood Avenue. It was fitting to be looking at beautiful Eichler homes while listening to a book about the love of architecture.

For another book (which I won’t name because I didn’t like it,) I wrote:

Finally made it through the rest of the book while taking the dog across the grass at the park behind the High School.

In a way, what I was doing was stealing the Madeleine from Proust and re-purposing it for my own needs. I know that if I can remember the experience I’m having at the time of learning something, then by remembering the stimulus I can pull that part of the book out of the deep storage in my brain. And believe it or not, I remember the exact spots I was in when I had both of the thoughts above. It’s a very powerful technique, similar in a way to memory palaces. If fact, to this day every time I think of that second book, I think of the tree I was walking under and the green garbage barrel next to it.

In his book How To Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens extols the value of putting notes into your own words. This is effective because it moves us from a passive mode of thinking (aka learning or absorbing,) and into an active mode of thinking (aka assimilation.)

When we highlight parts of a book we highlight based on an assumed understanding, but later, we review some of these highlights and find them completely useless. We say, “I don’t remember what this means.” In reality, we never knew what it meant. We were simply acknowledging the gist of the passage, but later we’ re confused by the same passage.

The gist is an impulse, not a thought. The gist come from the gut. It doesn’t have words. The gist isn’t understanding. The gist is simply an emotional reaction to reading something that resonates with us. This is why, while extremely uncomfortable at times, it important to put ideas into our own words. When we do so we find that we not only begin to engage different parts of our brain, but also we begin to unravel layers of meaning that weren’t apparent in the gist emotion.

My purpose with the reading journal is combine these two techniques. After reading a section of a book, I quickly jot down my understanding as succinctly and personally as possible. These notes are for me and me alone. They may make sense to no one else. I may read 30 pages of Moby Dick and simply write down the words “tedious passages, about the whaling industry.” This is not about collecting quotes or reasoning out the larger ideas in the book (though those certainly will be done in the same notebook.) The goal is to finish each book with about a page worth of summary in journal. Armed with this, at a later point, I can spend five minutes re-reading and jog my memory. No more losing books in dust cabinets of my head.

By C.A. Hall

Writer / Podcaster I'm a well-written sentence marred by a curse word. In another life I might have been a criminal profiler, a jazz drummer, an architect, an acrobat, an actor, or a children’s book illustrator.