Tools For Writers: The Reader’s Journal

by Randy Murray on February 11, 2013

I wish I’d kept a journal of every book I’ve read over the years. I have a very good memory of what I’ve read or intend to read, but it would be so nice to flip through the pages and see what I thought or felt as I read those books across the years. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, plays, and short story collections.

I’ve started to record my reading this year. I include it as a part of my own line a day journal. Better late than never, but I wish I’d had some early teacher or mentor to help me start this habit much earlier.

Perhaps I can do that for you.

The goal for your reader’s journal is to make note of what you read and when, then make a few notes about what you thought or felt as you read it. Do this while it’s all fresh in your mind and before you start the next book. Don’t make this a book report. Don’t make it a full review (unless you want to do that—but that may be better elsewhere). Just make a few notes, then pick up the next book and continue reading.

Here are a few of my current entries as examples:

  • January 1, 2013: Finished Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Very well written—an interesting exploration of exactly what Extroverts and Introverts are, backed up by current research, and personally relevant. I’ve wondered how I feel like an introvert and yet find myself in very public, out front situations.
  • January 5, 2013, Finished If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. Light and fun review of the history of the household from an English perspective. Gives a strong perspective supporting what I’ve been thinking: people are much the same, but we’ve lived and acted very differently across the years.
  • January 7, 2013, Finished The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know why I’ve never read this, but it’s beautiful. There’s something here that I suspect that I need for my current play project.
  • January 9, Finished This Side of Paradise (Dover Thrift Editions) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wow – I was right. This is what I needed. Remarkable book and is helping me really hone in on how educated men of this era talk. Now to load up on Hemingway.

For the writer this can be a valuable resource and reference. I often find that some stimulus or a change in the weather causes me to pick up a particular book.  That book leads to another and another and in a rush I’ve read a dozen or more books just because of one initial stimulus book. I want to remember what caused this chain of reading. It’s useful to know these things. It’s also useful to help to recreate a train of thought or to recover something that you’re read when you have even the briefest of notes to give you a clue about where you might find these things. I do this when I’m working on a play because I’ve always considered it research. I now want to expand that to everything that I read.

There’s another benefit to the reader’s journal: a quick look will tell you when you’ve gone stale, when you’re reading too much of one thing, you’ve gone all one note or genre, and when you might be missing out on other interesting things. Your journal will also tell you when you’ve gone far too long without reading. I frequently find that people in business or writers getting started often end up reading only self-help or “business” books. That will only get you so far, but more about that another day.

Open a text document and write. Buy a fancy new journal. Use 3X5 index cards and fill a file box. Leave a scrap of paper with these notes in the book itself (harder to do for books that you borrow or for eBooks).

Read. Make note of what you’ve read. Repeat.

Use your journal to help you to read and remember.

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