The Joy of Book Journals
“It’s got an orange cover and it’s by Richard Someone or maybe Roberta.” In the ten minutes it takes me to wander down to Mr’s B’s Emporium for a book I’ve just seen reviewed somewhere, I’ve often forgotten the title and author. And, like most people, I’d struggle to recall more than the general gist of a book a month after finishing it, or to quote an actual sentence. Our memories just don’t work in that way.
So I have a little book. A book journal. Not that exciting on the outside, but the inside is stuffed full of notes and cuttings and the occasional cartoon. I write brief notes on most of the books I read. I started when I was doing an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University as I had to cite them in essays. If an author used a technique I might want to explore like multiple narratives or a diary format, this was all duly noted ready to use for reference.
I’ve carried on with the journal because it helps with my own writing. What makes me love this character or find the dialogue convincing? Am I ever bored and skipping sections or is the author making me stay up late to keep on to the end? I’m reading as a writer looking at the craft of the author. And I don’t want to waste that process – so I need an aide-memoire.
I’ve never shown anyone before but here’s a sneaky peak inside my book journals and a flavour of the random notes I’ve made:
I loved Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon and copied out the dedication: “For you the dreamers. Overlooked at school. Never won prizes. You who will own tomorrow.” I was genuinely creeped out by Alex Bell’s Frozen Charlotte and for Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal I’ve underlined a cryptic “good on desire”. In Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart I admired the way the book resolved to give satisfaction but left threads for the next book.
The line which really tickled me in David Solomon’s My Brother is a Superhero was: “I don’t know what it was but something about the situation made people want to cook meat slowly in large pots.” That still makes me laugh. From Rachel Ward’s Numbers I’d picked out a well-done sex scene on page 135, which I seem to remember involved hay and a barn, and in David Almond’s A Song for Ella Grey I wished I’d written the prose on pages 51 and 275.
These notes are all very personal to me and my experience of the books. As I flick through, I’m transported back into those stories and how I felt about them. And reviewing the notes gives a better chance of the information making it into long-term memory.
So I’d strongly recommend keeping a book journal if you want to be a writer. Make your own peculiar comments and build up a bespoke “How to write” handbook full of the bits which interest you. Plus, it’s a good reason if you needed one to buy more stationery.
Oh, and those clever bookseller types at Mr B’s who like a challenge found the book I was after. The orange book written by Richard/Roberta turned out to be Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. And the cover is blue.
Written by Tracy Darnton
Tracy Darnton’s The Truth About Lies will be published by Stripes on July 12th 2018. Now she’s written a thriller on memory, she hopes to be much better at remembering.
Follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton