In my opinion, the most useful single book a student of the Humanities can own is not a dictionary, a thesaurus, or any “Great Work”. It is a reading journal.
My girlfriend made me one as a gift last Christmas. She intended it to serve as a forum in which to preserve my thoughts and feelings on various books I’ve read, a convenient space to store treasured quotes and shortcuts to particularly memorable passages, and a way to track each step in my literary journey; essentially, it was a bibliophile’s dream.
It also turned out to be an extraordinarily useful academic tool.
The journal came furnished with two basic templates per page; these templates consisted of the headings Title, Author, Date Started, Date Finished, and Rating out of 5 in the left margin, with a squared-off area for additional notes to the right. My first entries, written on books I’d read in the past, fit comfortably within this template—once I began writing entries on books I was reading in the present, however, I began to find the template limiting. 1-5 proved too narrow a range to accurately capture the differences in my enjoyment of certain books; it had to be extended to 1-10. The square spaces designated for my notes proved too small to fit all the quotes and thoughts and page numbers I wanted to record, and I found myself stacking Post-It notes on top of one another just to get it all down; I had to start writing on just one book per page. It was in expanding this template that I stumbled upon a host of useful strategies for reading books specifically for class.
Understanding the text you are writing on is the first step to crafting an outstanding essay. Personally, I find that reading a book multiple times is the best way to tease out all of its subtleties; the first pass allows you to acquaint yourself with the basic “what” of the book (i.e plot, character development, the general thrust of an argument), enabling you to focus more on the deeper “how” and “why” (i.e literary techniques, social/historical context, key themes) during any subsequent readthroughs. Of course, given the workloads and deadlines faced by the average student, reading every single word of a book or excerpt assigned for a course multiple times is simply not feasible. In recording important quotes, ideas, lecture notes, and page numbers as you go along, however, you provide yourself with touchstones which you can revisit after your first reading to conduct a kind of condensed second readthrough. In addition to saving you many an hour of rapid page-skimming in search of essay-relevant passages, storing page references enables you to quickly retrace the development of certain important themes/concepts throughout the work, which can help you make connections you may have missed during your initial reading. Charting the way an author develops a particular idea is a brilliant way to get a sense of how you could develop an argument about it.
Such a strategy works especially well if you write down a course’s Desired Learning Outcomes (a life-changing but frequently overlooked tool located in most course syllabi) and sort your entries according to them. Reading with course concerns in mind enables you to better anticipate the kinds of topics your professor may ask you to write a paper about long before the actual questions are released, which can help deepen your comprehension while simultaneously reducing your overall workload. Convenience and comprehension are nearly always enemies; it’s a wonderful thing to watch them get along.
Beginning any piece of writing is nearly always the most difficult part. Plucking relevant information out of all the noise that springs up in your head when confronted with a blank page is a notoriously painful process; by externalizing information as you receive it and collecting your thoughts in one concrete space, you can mitigate or even avoid this issue altogether—you can begin before you begin. Such is the power of the reading journal.
Whether you read for pleasure, self-improvement, your degree, or all three, there is really no better gift you can give yourself.
PS Whether you decide to compile your notes in a reading journal or not, I would highly recommend checking out SASS’ note-making guides (https://sass.queensu.ca/reading-and-notemaking/techniques-3/) for some extremely useful techniques to help you get the most out of your readings.