Reading Journals

During the month of December, I saw a great many social media posts about the number of books people read during 2021, as well as posts about how many books people planned to read in 2022. Last week, as 2021 wound to a close, I watched a video of a woman setting up a beautiful reading journal. It was gorgeous, really—she got creative and decorated the pages and different “spreads,” a scrapbooking or bullet journaling term for sets of pages intended for specific purposes. I was enthralled. She started with decorating the inside cover—it was lovely, and I considered whether I might do something like that myself for 2022. She then created a cover page and a quote page–okay, very nice. Next, she created spreads for an index, a 2022 reading tracker with a goal of reading 115 books, a spread of books she especially wants to read in 2022 with space to rate them–I found anxiety begin to creep in. Finally, she created a “book bracket” to help her pick her favorite book of the year–whew!

“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” —David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time

At this point, I was on the verge of a panic attack. First, I have to admit, part of my reaction was due to the fact that, outside of writing, I am in no way artistic or crafty. But the biggest part of my reaction was due to where I am at in my life right now. To be fair to this woman and her absolutely delightful reading journal, I just came out of five straight years of college filled with reading lists where much of my reading material was decided for me. Even the books I chose for myself the past five years were selected with a purpose in mind–to help me learn to write a closer point-of-view or how to begin a story or how to add subtext. I kept reading journals the whole five years—as I read, I filled the journals with my thoughts, favorite quotes, notes on the way an author did a particular thing, or passages that would support what I intended to write about for the critical papers I was required to write. I read so many great books for school, and I was thrilled to read them, but still, it wasn’t quite the same as grabbing a promising-looking book from a shelf and diving into the unknown.

Reading has always been a big part of my life, but it was a major part of my life while I finished college, and it’s nice having a record of my reading experiences. But right now, racing through books to try to reach a number goal doesn’t feel the least bit enjoyable. I have a lot going on, and I tend to make everything in my life a big project with detailed lists and goals. So, for me, the thought of tracking my reading in this particular way at this particular time in my life feels overwhelming. For the record, I actually love the reading-journal-making video, and when I step back and look at it from the point of view of not having to do it myself, it is not overwhelming at all.

My 2022 reading journal: isn’t she lovely?

During school, I kept my reading journals in plain notebooks. This year, I did treat myself to a fancy reading journal in which I likely will not create any spreads. I’m just planning to note the titles and authors of the books I read throughout the year. I just want a space to note anything that comes to mind while I’m reading the book. I especially love writing down favorite passages. So it will be similar to the journals I’ve been keeping, but only with a fancy cover to celebrate beginning a new journey–reading not as a student, but as a working writer who will always be a student of the work I am reading.

But I will not be setting a number goal of books to be read by the end of the year. Instead, my reading goals this year are both more abstract and more focused. I plan to make space in my life for reading in a way that adds more to my life as a human being and as a writer, for example, reading before bed rather than watching television. (Too much screen time for work and social media has been a killer lately.) I also plan to read more books by Latinx writers and other BIPOC writers. I plan to buy my books from brick-and-mortar stores this year, but I also plan to make use of our local lending library and to read books that are already waiting for me on my shelves or in my TBR stacks. Finally, I plan to be especially choosy about the books I write reviews for this year and to give those books my best–I want my book reviews to matter.

I started the year off with a palate cleanser, a book designed to clear my head and reaffirm my intentions for reading books. It’s a book that’s helping me find my way back into reading for myself and myself alone: The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time by David L. Ulin. As I write this, I’m finding that the book is already helping me re-decide for myself what reading means to me, what it gives me, and how it makes me better in ways that count. If you’re interested, you can get a taste by reading “The Lost Art of Reading,” Ulin’s Los Angeles Times essay that inspired the book.

The next book I’m going to read this year is …. Actually, I have no clue which book I’m going to read next, and that’s part of the fun. I’ll make that decision when the time comes. Whether I read a dozen books or fifty books or one hundred books this year, my biggest goal is to enjoy reading.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not averse to more complex and goal-oriented reading journals. They’re just not for me right now, coming off several years of goal-oriented reading. It’s something I may try in the future, when my life is a little less complex.

If you’re into creating a reading journal, here are a few articles with creative and beautiful ideas for spreads:

My Bullet Journal Makes Me a Better Reader

8 Creative Ways to Track Books in Your Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal Spreads and Ideas for Book Readers and Bloggers

You can also find lots of ideas on Pinterest, as well as reading journal tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the lovely video I watched last month and again, in a less-panicked mode, this morning, before I wrote this post:

What are your reading goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them–please chime in on Twitter or Instagram.

READER TIP: Whether it’s simple or complex, I really do recommend that all writers keep a reading journal. I started doing so five years ago, and it’s been life-changing. Overall, it’s added to my love of reading, and it’s nice to be able to go back and find things like a particular quote you loved, a thought the reading inspired, or an idea that informs your work-in-progress.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.