On Keeping a Reading Journal

In lieu of journaling prompts for May, I thought I might share about my reading journal.

For a little backstory, I grew up reading a lot. I wasn’t really allowed to read at the dinner table, but I often read while snacking or eating solo, I read late into the night, reading on the edge of a bathtub when I was supposed to be in the shower. I went off to college, studied English literature, still reading. I’ve held onto a nearly ruined copy of Gone with the Wind that I remember reading in my college dormitory in my first year, on my squeaky cot, peeling paint on the concrete walls.

After I got my first job teaching, my reading slowed down a bit, but it wasn’t too bad. I read in bed, on weekends in cafes, I listened to audio books on CD from the library on my long commutes across the city, something that I miss every once in a while–these massive cases with CD sleeves in them, and the horror when one of those CDs had a scratch and you missed the end of a chapter. Obviously this was pre-kids, living the life.

After we opened the shop, with that first crazy year of being open seven days a week and doing all the online packing at night, and then the possibly even crazier second year when Caleb came along and the shop was still open seven days a week, my reading plummeted. I didn’t really notice too much–I was mostly just busy all the time. After Caleb left infanthood, turned into a toddler, and we (all) turned a corner, I started picking up books again, and I realized how much I missed reading. Even after Naomi, the discovery of audio books from the library, via the fabulous Overdrive app, during nursing, or even reading e-books on my phone during nursing, were revolutionary for me both in my reading life but also my relationship with Naomi and nursing. There have been more than a few nights where I’ve been putting Naomi to sleep, and perhaps I’ve left Jon to do the cleaning downstairs for a few minutes longer after she’d gone to sleep.

I can tell you all this because I have a book wherein I’ve listed the titles I’ve read that year, and those first years, 2013 and 2014 were pretty slim.

In any case, last year I began keeping a reading journal, and it has changed the way I read books.

In terms of format, the main thrust is that I allocate two facing pages for each book I read, and I aim to fill up both pages.

Once I’ve started a book, at the top left corner I write the title and author as well as when I start and when I (hopefully) finish the book. I tend to read a few books at a time, including often one audiobook, and it’s a good way to keep track of what’s on the go, or what’s been flagging and maybe needs to be dropped. I write in the pages as I’m reading with quotes or thoughts, and if there’s still, as there often is, space at the end, I fill them up with whatever thoughts I may have on the book.

I keep a table of contents at the front that lists out each book and page numbers. I number the pages as I go. I circle the page numbers of books I’ve finished. If I don’t finish a book, the pages just stay unfilled. I’m not religious about finishing books I’ve started, but I’m also trying to balance good books that might require a sustained effort of mental fortitude with books that are genuinely not worth my time.

I write basically anything, with the only caveat that I will fill up the two pages once I’m done. I’m a firm subscriber to the practice of just writing and seeing what comes; the process of forcing myself to reflect on what I thought of or liked about or didn’t like about a book has unearthed some real surprises. Perhaps even more importantly, I find I’ve begun to notice more when I read, thinking to myself oh, I should make a note of that or this is a quote I need to write down.

I’m not expecting any brilliant insights–that’s perhaps maybe a good way to guarantee that I’m not going to get any–I’m just asking myself what I thought. I often look up reviews of books or if an author has a website, and a lot of that might filter in as well.

If I’m stuck, I just start with a summary: this book was about… and go from there. I often copy quotes, write down things I’d like to look up, memorable scenes, things I didn’t understand. I also write down context, like if I’m reading this book for a book club, or as an audio book, or if I started reading it at the cottage. I do occasionally have to take some time to go through the insert and see what I’ve finished reading and haven’t written about yet, backtracking finish dates. It’s a terrible thing when it’s been a month or two and I have to struggle to remember what I really thought.

This reading journal has also changed how I read non-fiction books. I rarely read business books, but occasionally I will hear about one often enough that I’ll add it to my list, and often these books have ideas or interesting anecdotes that make their way into my journal. Taking notes, deciding what’s important, what could be useful. Memoirs or biographies often have events or people I need to look up, or references to books that I’ll add to my own to be read list.

The biggest change is simply the fact that I’m forced to think about a book after I’ve read it. There are some books I’ve been fortunate enough to read that have lasted in my mind well past their return to the library, but too often I close a book and it’s simply gone from my mind.

More often now, I’m seeing how this habit of reflection has begun to re-wire my brain, and when I’m reading, I’m beginning to notice things more, make connections more often–thoughts, ideas, stories are percolating more and more. From silly things like isn’t that interesting that there was a pet bunny in that book, and now they’re hunting and eating a rabbit in this book to noticing themes or ideas or commonalities that maybe I wouldn’t have noticed before.

One of my favourite accessories to this whole thing are these sticky notes. They’re made by Midori and fountain pen friendly, but I also love that they’re quite large so they fit a lot–they come in an A7 size, but I like the A6. I’ve heard so many people I admire wax poetic about marginalia and underlining directly into books, but I’m a library reader, so these books have gotta go back home after I’m done.

I mostly use these for copying out quotes or making notes when I don’t have my Traveler’s Notebook with me, and I either stick the whole thing into my journal or I transcribe things I can decipher. I try to keep a few at the back of books that I’m reading, and I transfer over any surplus blank ones to the back of the next book I read.

In any case, this has been both a challenge and a release for me over the last little while. I’m on my second insert, and I’m really enjoying how it’s changed how I reading, as well as the satisfaction of seeing the pages fill up. There is something really lovely about a notebook full of crinkly pages.

There are, I think, many sayings by many important people about how the books someone reads is a reflection of who they are and their thinking. I almost never look back or read pages from this journal (or any other), but in many ways this is both a journal of the books I’m reading as well as a journal of the seasons of life I’m going through. What I’m choosing to read and how I feel about it all, the small details of where I am that trickle through between the words about the books, everything comes together.


  1. Charlotte Riise

    What a lovely reading and journaling practice. I have kept reading journals on and off for years – I only recently started up again. It is nice to challenge myself in both reading and writing, and a record of sorts of what I read and thought.

    I do wonder: is that your TN with your planner and lists and the reading journal in there as well? Or do you keep a separate TN for this journal?

    • wonderpens

      Thanks so much for reading!

      This is my TN with a planner and an additional insert as a journal, so I keep three inserts inside in total, along with a zipper pocket which houses stamps, coins, receipts. I do adjust every once and again, but this has been working out for the last little while for me. πŸ™‚

  2. Gina

    I used to be a voracious reader ad well. But, as you have said, life happens. My son keeps asking me, everyday, how many pages have I read today. And I am always guilty for I have not read any. I like your idea of forcing myself to allot two pages for every book I read. I will try this. πŸ’“

    • wonderpens

      How lovely that you have a little built-in accountability system! It is so nice that your son is so interested in your reading. I hope this system, or something else, works for you. πŸ™‚

  3. Melissa B

    This blog was one of the most insightful posts I have read in a while – it is a great idea! I read the Book of Negros by Lawrence Hill when it first came out and led me onto a very satisfying learning journey of historical ethnicity in Nova Scotia and New York – a small journal would have been perfect to collect these thoughts to look back on. I will begin one immediately, thanks so much!

    • wonderpens

      Yes, I know exactly what you mean, when one book leads you down a rabbit hole through other authors or discoveries! An ever expanding world. Hope a reading journal brings you much of what you’re looking for.

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