Our Reading Lives

Book Journals: The Perfect Place For Messy and Incoherent Ramblings

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Tiffani Willis

Staff Writer

Tiffani C. Willis spends as much as time as she is able to traveling the universe by book and sometimes by, plane, train, boat, or car. When she’s not off on an adventure in a faraway land or trying to solve a mystery like a detective, Tiffani uses her powers as an academic librarian to help students survive school as they learn how to do research and write research papers. She spends her spare time rambling, raving, and ranting about books on her blog Passport Books, camping out in bookstores, and obsessively watching HGTV, usually with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine nearby. Twitter: @PassportBooks

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?