Tip of the Week: Reading Notebook


I have a lousy memory. It is partly because of my ME/CFS, which affects my cognitive functions, but mostly, I reckon its just that I have a lousy memory. This is not necessarily manifested in forgetting to put the rubbish out on the appointed day when the bin men visit, missing someone’s birthday, or forgetting to buy bay leaves or toothpaste while at the supermarket, that being the main thing I went out for. Everybody does that.

No, I forget whole ideas.

Once upon a time, I knew what Hermeneutics meant. Actually, I knew quite a lot about it. Husband frequently re-explains it to me (he’s an academic, so he uses words like that all the time!). It doesn’t stick.

I’ve read dozens of books on Tudor history and the Bloomsbury Group and the Anthropology of Religion, and the theory behind abstract art.

And I’m buggered if I can remember any of it now!

The trouble is that I forget anything I haven’t written down.

But then I read Hermione Lee’s masterly biography of Virginia Woolf, and there discovered the answer:

The Reading Notebook.

Woolf was a self-educated woman who earnt a great deal of her literary reputation in the early years of her career by reviewing other people’s books. She read widely and voraciously. In order to organise her thoughts on what she read, she kept a reading notebook.

A notebook, with a margin ruled on one side, in which she inserted the date and the page of whatever book she was reading, the title of which of course was also included. And then beside the page number, she might include a quote or a reflection of her own. This allowed her to keep a record of her own thoughts and how what she was reading linked with what she already knew, or her own opinions. When the time came to write a review, she would look back over her notes and use them to craft a response to the book in question in her own elegant style.

This is such a simple solution. It not only allows you to write down what is essentially an aide memoir on the subject of any book, but also means you can track your own ideas and responses to what you read. You can literally see how your own opinions develop.

I have begun to adopt this habit, and I have to tell you that it really, really helps.

I can remember what I have read, because I have made notes on it.

I am able to reflect on what I am reading, and think about my own response, rather than just letting the text flow through me, unapprehended.

I suppose this is a little like the practise of Lectio Divina, a form of mindful, contemplative reading of scriptures and religious texts which has been practised by Benedictine monks, and others, for centuries.

Yes, it can be a bit time-consuming, but I think that if you are reading something really important to you, it is worth the effort, because it helps the brain to incorporate the new information into already existing neuropathways. And fitting new information into the networks of what you already know is a method proven by psychologists to be effective for learning.

Pages from my reading notebook.

Pages from my reading notebook.

The only way to know, of course, is to try it out. Start with a cheap little notebook. An ordinary exercise book is good. I like the A5 kind because it fits in my handbag. Get out your ruler and put margins on the first few pages, if your notebook doesn’t already have them. Make sure you write down the details of which book you are writing about – title, author, edition etc. I also like to include the library reference and which library I got the book from, if appropriate.

You don’t have to write something after reading every paragraph. Just make a note when something jumps out at you. Scribble in your thoughts. Don’t be precious about how it looks. It’s a workbench for your own use, remember.

I have to say that I am getting great results with this method. I really like scribbling down thoughts as I go along in a book, especially when it is non-fiction, which I tend to read a lot of. Yes, it takes a little extra time, but I find its worth it.

Take a leaf out of Virginia Woolf’s book and try it out for yourself.

Happy creating,



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