Our Reading Lives

Book Journals: The Perfect Place For Messy and Incoherent Ramblings

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Last week, I arrived home to find a blue and white box on my doorstop. If not for the purse in my right hand and work bag in the left I would have jumped for joy. As it was, I couldn’t help but burst into a smile. My new book journal had arrived!

I have always been a writer. Not a professional writer, just someone who works out her thoughts on paper. My first diary was a tiny pink book with a flimsy lock that could be jiggled open with a paperclip. (I learned to hide my diary rather than rely on the flimsy lock.) I have been writing my thoughts down ever since.

Over the years I have kept all sorts of journals. Currently I have four going: One is for general thoughts and has a white skull intertwined with red flowers against a black background on the cover. My exercise and wellness journal is purple. (Happy colors aid in motivation, I’ve found.) The third has two samurais fighting on the cover, one holding a sword and the other a pen because “the pen is mightier than the sword.” That one is for jotting down story ideas, project notes, and other inspirations. The fourth journal is for books. The soon-to-be-full book journal has a Doctor Who theme. The new journal is decorated with butterflies in an array of colors, and bonus – it came with stickers!

My first book journal was a gift. It was a small green and white book with spaces to write in the title, author, publisher, dates read, and comments. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before then to keep a book journal, but as soon as I opened to that first page it felt like, of course I should be doing this. I am not always consistent in tracking when and if I exercised and weeks have gone by between entries in my general journal. But with the book journal I am always consistent. That first green and white journal made its way into my hands in February, 1996. I haven’t stopped book journaling since.

So why keep a book journal? Why especially a paper journal in the era of Goodreads and other digital tools? Well for starters, I do use Goodreads, enthusiastically and daily. I also write about the books I’ve read on my blog, Passport Books. As much as I love those platforms, neither of them could replace my paper journal.

My book journal isn’t only for tracking what I read, but also for reading goals, words that moved me so much I had to write them down, authors and books to check out, and whether I ever actually get around to checking them out. Like old pictures and concert t-shirts, each page is a ticket to my past selves. They allow me to see what I was thinking, reading, and feeling back then, not only about books, but about life in general. Looking in my second book journal (also green but that time just a regular notebook) reminds me of that period in my early twenties when, fearing that my college education had been insufficient, I decided to embark on a quest to read the classics and thereby turn myself into a “well read” person. (I more or less gave that up but still read “classics,” just not with the objective of becoming “well read.”) And there was that horrible time when I was too stressed out to focus on a book and so instead wrote about the difficulty of being in a reading slump, which has been helpful whenever I have found myself in another slump.

Book journals are especially great when rereading, for a book read at age 15 can seem like a wholly different book when read at age 25 or 35. The Handmaid’s Tale took on much more significance when I read it the second time as a full-fledged adult. To Be Young, Gifted and Black always seems to have something new to teach me each time I read it. Then again, sometimes feelings don’t change. It turns out that I hated Wuthering Heights at age 30 for pretty much the same reasons I hated it at age 16. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I would reread something I didn’t like the first time, it is because I do this thing where every so often I give something a second chance to see if my tastes have changed. The thing could be food, a book, an activity, whatever. So far I have discovered that Brussels sprouts and readings plays aren’t so bad; beets and Wuthering Heights are as terrible as I remember.

The other reason, perhaps the main reason, I continue to use paper even though so many digital options are available is because those options are often social. While I love sharing thoughts about books with other people, I also need a private space where I don’t have to worry about being nice, fair, or articulate. A book journal is the perfect place for this. There I don’t have to write coherently or logically. I do not need to worry about summarizing the story for another reader. I don’t even have to write about the book itself, but can instead focus on why I picked it up or how it reminded me of something going on in my life. It is the perfect repository for my incoherent, messy ramblings. Everyone needs a place where they can be incoherent and messy, right?