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Essays

5 Takes on a Reading Journal

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

I know that I’m not alone in loving books even when I can remember almost nothing about them, apart from the way they made me feel. I try to give myself some grace. I’m not being tested, after all. Not to mention, the feelings are the most important part to me. But if my memory fails me so often, perhaps I need a new tactic. And having a way to revisit books, for recommendation purposes or simply for the fun of a stroll down memory lane, is incredibly useful. That’s where book journaling comes in. Our responses to books can change over time. By that token, journaling about them is a great way to capture a snapshot of our reading lives that rereading a book won’t necessarily provide.

Whenever it comes to establishing a habit, the important thing is to be honest with oneself. If, realistically, the best you’ll be able to do is list the books you’ve read with a sentence or two and maybe a star rating, that’s a start. It’s much easier to grow a small habit than it is to dive into an elaborate book journaling process.

If you want to purchase a book journal that is printed with various kinds of journaling prompts, we’ve got some ideas for you. But it’s always worth it to do some deep thinking about what you want to get out of book journaling first. Then figure out what format — print or digital — matches that best. I’ve outlined five takes on book journaling, modeled as personality types. In all reality, your book journal will likely combine more than one of these types. So let’s see what vibes with you.

The Data Scientist

Data scientists are the book journalers who can tell you all the facts and figures about what they read. Their book journals are full of lists and graphs. They are drawn to planners and trackers. Data scientists may log how many pages they read per day, or what percentage of the books they read are in different genres. There may be information about who recommended the books they read. They may include granular rankings with half-star or half-chili pepper intervals, plus challenges to fill in.

People drawn to the more data-driven aspect of journaling would probably be well served by bullet journaling methods. And we have plenty of information for you about book bujos. This article shows lots of ideas for spreads, lists, and trackers. We’ve got bullet journal supplies and even more specifically bookish and affordable supplies. If bullet journaling intimidates you, maybe this Rioter’s experience will help you get your head around how the practice could work for you.

The Critic

Another way to keep a book journal is to focus on criticism. I don’t mean writing what you dislike about the book, though you can obviously do that. I mean focusing on what you think the book set out to accomplish and whether it did that. You can write about aspects of the book including its dominant themes, structure, prose styling, the level of character development, and the pacing of the plot. If you’re interested in learning how to write a book review, we’ve got steps to follow and some templates you can use.

Writing critically about books can be useful in a couple of ways. One, if you’re a student, this is the kind of analysis you’ll likely be doing as a part of school work. More practice is always good. Maybe you aspire to be a writer or work within the book world as an editor or agent. If so, thinking and writing critically are important professional skills to have. Even apart from usefulness, I always like to jot down the big ideas I took away from a book. Those big ideas are right up there with the feelings as the most important takeaways from books for me.

The Memory Keeper

One excellent use of a book journal is to collect beloved quotes and passages from a book. Beyond that, it can also be great to keep a plot summary of the book. This can help you if you aren’t planning to reread a book before its sequel comes out. It may even help in the course of reading a book. I have definitely had to take notes while reading to keep character names or made-up places and concepts straight.

If you like to annotate books, flipping through at the end to reevaluate your highlights and record the best of the best in a journal can be a fun activity. If you’re drawn to writers who are fantastic down to the sentence level — your Toni Morrisons and Emily St. John Mandels, for example — you simply won’t be able to remember all the beauty you experienced in your reading journey. But you can distill it to revisit whenever you like.

The Visualizer

Here’s a category of book journaling I find very aspirational. I’m struck by journals that include visual elements, be they doodles, cartoons, sketches, or collages. Even animated gifs, in the case of a digital format! If you’re someone who likes making mood boards or vision boards, you can apply that practice to find pictures that evoke the same feelings as a book you’ve read. Likewise, if you enjoy fancasting, why not cut out some celebrity photos from old magazines and bust out the glue sticks?

Even if you don’t count yourself among the artistically gifted, you can add more visual elements to your book journal. One way is color coding. For example, you could write about what you liked in a book with one color pen and what you didn’t like with a different color. Or you could associate colors with moods, so funny books get written about with, say, purple ink.

A visualizer may also keep a bookish junk journal. A book journal could collect business cards from book stores visited, bookmarks tucked into a library book upon checkout, or the promotional items included with a book’s preorder. Keep cards that loved ones pair with a book they give to you as a gift, along with ticket stubs or programs to any bookish events you attend. All this ephemera can be collected into your reading journal if you so wish.

The Reflector

There’s a difference between a log and a journal, right? It’s a lovely practice to record your most personal connections to a book you read. Perhaps a book jogs a particular memory, or a character reminds you of someone you know. You will no doubt be delighted to revisit this journal and find these connection points in the future.

If part of the reason you read is to learn more about yourself and your place in the world, processing that learning in writing might help. The kinds of reflections you make in the course of reading a book that really challenges your thinking are worth recording. If these are the kinds of things that make you nervous to write down, you can always make a reflection journal online and password-protected. You can also destroy your journals after you’ve found they’ve served their purpose! Sometimes writing something down one time and never looking at it again is all you need. There’s truly no wrong way to do it.

The Hybrid

Given the above five book journaling personalities, where do you think you fit? Where do you aspire to land? I’d love to include aspects from all five into my own journaling practice, because I’m a maximalist like that. So I encourage you to find that notebook you think is too nice to write in, and get journaling. Your thoughts on the books you read are worthy of being committed to nice paper, I promise.