I am notoriously bad at agendas and journaling. As far back as elementary school, I can remember getting a paralyzing sense of stress at the thought of having to keep an agenda, because I used to believe that as soon as you write it down, it’s final. My compulsive and overachieving personality would insist that no matter how stressed out I was, I needed to complete every task on my agenda or the sky would apparently fall. Similarly, I used to find it incredibly difficult to keep a journal because I didn’t yet know who I was, so writing out my thoughts on a page also caused paralyzing stress. Over the last few years, I’ve made scrapbooking into a form of makeshift journaling, and this year I commenced keeping something I’m shocked I didn’t start sooner: a reading journal.
There are plenty of schools of thought on what method of journaling about books is the best. Countless versions of reading journals from an almost infinite amount of publishers exist on every online book retailer. But despite being a self-proclaimed professional introvert for my entire life whose hands have never been far away from a book, my aversion to journaling kept me away from the idea of starting a reading journal for far too long. I’d seen them in bookstores before, but the motivation to start one of my own only hit me this past spring, while browsing a new and improved indie bookseller in my neighborhood. I didn’t love the layout of their book journals enough to buy one, but my interest had been piqued.
I started browsing reading journals online, still never finding one that I liked enough to buy — mostly because when journals published to inspire creativity include prompts that don’t interest me, I’m not going to be motivated at all to write in it. So I decided I was just going to start my own reading journal in a spare notebook, with my own rules and definitions. My interest in starting some sort of journal dedicated to books was borne from a tendency to copy down random passages and quotes from books in the form of a review on Goodreads. I didn’t care if others understood the out-of-context passages or “liked” my reviews, I just loved the words enough to want to preserve them somewhere. And since I happened to be blessed with an influx of creativity earlier this year after a long, dark period of feeling blocked thanks to Miss Rona, I decided that 2021 was as good a year as any to start keeping track of what I read on paper.
Surprisingly enough, the idea of writing down my own thoughts in the form of titles, start and finish dates, and my favorite quotes didn’t cause the paralyzing stress and fear that journaling used to cause in my childhood. I’ve looked back on journals I attempted to keep when I was younger and just cringed — a little at the only slightly imperfect penmanship, but mostly at the people I used to be. I didn’t recognize them at all and felt embarrassed that queer people like myself so often grow up not having the proper tools or guidance to know who they are. There were even periods of my early adulthood where I felt disgusted even having to document the date on things, because I had no interest in being forced to remember the ugliness I was feeling in that month of that year. (An eidetic memory is honestly more of a curse than a blessing. I remember far too much.)
As much as I would never want to repeat the pain and tragedies of the last year for anything, I did have the privilege of time, space, and silence to not only sit with myself, but to begin making peace with myself. The person I was before the pandemic is also someone I no longer recognize, and that is surely for the better. The fact that I felt compelled enough to start remembering every book I read by challenging myself to find at least one quote or passage I liked, even if I didn’t particularly love the book itself, was a great gift I was able to give myself. One that said, “Life is not perfect. It never has been and never will be. But it’s not worth torturing yourself over every mishap that has ever happened to you or, as Taylor Swift would say, the things that haunt you in the middle of the night.” It’s much better to remember and be defined by the things we love, so that when a bad day inevitably does return, you can flip through the pages of a reading journal and remember that one book that really set your soul on fire. As Demi Moore notes in her memoir Inside Out — one of the first books I documented in my first reading journal — “What I learned is that how we hold our experiences is everything.”
I’ll admit that, on some days, the thought of having to write the date down for whatever reason still causes me a twinge of discomfort, an overwhelming reminder that I exist. But then I remind myself that there’s no other person, place, or thing that I’d rather be. To quote a poem by May Sarton, whose poetry I read for the first time this winter and who certainly played a part in my reinvigorated creativity:
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before—’
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.”