L.L. reads a lot of books, but she doesn’t buy a lot of books — she uses her local library. “The only books I buy are the absolute ones that I’m returning to over and over and over again,” she said. “I have a small house, and most of my books are in the attic, which is not a happy place for books because I’m separated from them.”
Perhaps that separation is why she takes such time and care with each book. What she reads finds its way to her reading notebook.
It is an actual notebook. Her current one is pink and bronze with a maze design and a heavy vinyl cover. To keep track of the books featured in each reading notebook, L.L. handwrites a table of contents.
“The only thing that will go in this notebook is notes from my reading,” she said. “In this notebook, number 1 says, ‘Continued from beige and gold notebook.’”
For the most part, L.L. uses her reading notebook for nonfiction. For her, fiction is a place to play.
“Stories for me have different purposes. For me, fiction is like finger painting, and nonfiction would be more like oil painting,” she said.
Keeping her reading notebook is a three-step exercise.
“With a pencil, while I read, when I come to a sentence I like, I put a little check mark in the margin,” L.L. said. “When I’m all done reading the book, I start right at the beginning and look for those check marks, and I reread those sections — what was it that I loved here? — and I copy those into my notebook.”
The notebook’s pages look like the pages in a regular spiral notebook. In the college-ruled section, she writes the quote. In the left-hand margin she writes the page number where she found the quote.
The practice is based on something she picked up from a college professor who suggested that while students take notes, they write the page number where the information could be found in the left-hand margin. The idea was to make creating a bibliography easier. L.L. revamped the practice a couple of years ago, when she realized her reading notes were scattered in different notebooks.
“I’d be in conversation with somebody, and I’d be like, ‘In Brain Rules,’ wait … where is that quote? I know I put it in a notebook somewhere.’ I need to dedicate reading notebooks so I can find what I want when I want,” she said. “Now that notebook has become a narrative of what I was seeing.”
In the third step, after copying relevant quote and page number into the notebook, Barkat may or may not write more.
“If I have commentary, I write that in little brackets. It’s always in brackets so I can see my thoughts,” she said.
Sometimes she has the thought as she’s actually writing the quote. If that happens, she’ll jot it in the notebook, in those little brackets. And sometimes that thought will be a writing idea — maybe something for her to write at Edutopia, or at Jane Friedman’s, or perhaps at Tweetspeak.
“One of them is Reading in the Wild, by the way, on page 115 [of the reading notebook]. You see what happened there. I wrote this in my notebook, and now we’re doing a column [at Tweetspeak],” she said.
Because the act of keeping the reading notebook has led to so much published writing, Barkat recommends the practice to all writers.
“I start to see patterns. If I scan the margins, I can see the genesis of certain ideas that felt like they were so original or just came to me, but I look back and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, a year ago in my reading notebook, look what I was writing in the margins. This was happening for a whole year, and I didn’t really know it was happening, and then it reached its tipping point in my brain and became An Idea.’”
Those ideas often come from putting one book next to another — a poetry book next to a math book next to a business book next to a book about climate change.
“There’s a revolution in my notebook,” L.L. said.
We tend to think of revolutions as big things, perhaps with lots of fireworks. But often radical change happens slowly. Keeping a reading notebook helps Barkat create that change.
“We can be growing when we don’t know we’re growing. It can feel like nothing is going anywhere. We can feel down, and then you look back and say, ‘Wait a minute. Look at the momentum that was building for all these months — look at that!’ It can remind us that just as writing takes time, growth takes time,” she said. “We can be a little less hard on ourselves. It’s okay to be slower. I believe that as long as you are engaging life, you are growing.”
Start Your Own Reading Notebook!
1) A notebook. Consider one with a heavy cover so it doesn’t fall apart.
2) A pencil or pen to write with. Part of the genius of this practice is writing in longhand so cross-fertilization can occur.
3) A book. Get thee to the library! Or choose one of the books off your beside table stack and start reading.
1) Put a small pencil check mark next to quotes or ideas you like, as you read the book. You can also put check marks next to books that are referenced or recommended in the text; this is a great book discovery tool to point you to future reads.
2) When you’re finished with the book, reread the check-marked material and copy the parts of it you like, plus any book titles you want to keep track of, into your reading notebook.
3) As you copy each part, add to the left-hand margin the page number where you found the quote or idea.
4) As you write, comment on the idea in brackets, if you like, before copying the next part.
5) Once you copy all the parts, go back and read the notes. In the left-hand margin, give a brief label to any especially intriguing quote or idea, for ease of pattern-finding later on. This can help you easily find grist for articles or life changes.
6) Erase all your pencil check marks from the book, if it’s a library book.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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