Keeping thoughts on books

Having reading groups postponed after I’ve read the book sometimes means forgetting all the compelling and witty thoughts I had. What helps is keeping quick notes made at the time.

I use the following mashup of approaches from Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative and Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist (consult both for far more details and justification!).

This keeps the notes contained while also teasing out ample thoughts and opinions, and jolting the memory adequately. I’ve posted about this before, because it’s a useful framework for creating conversations and opinions in class discussions. But I use it a lot myself.

I aim to make at least three notes for each of these points:

  • Patterns (between this and anything else, and go wide — after any obvious connections, I try to force links with the last things I watched/read)
  • What surprised you? (and why)
  • What did you like? (and why)
  • What didn’t work for you? (and why? how could it have been done differently, and how would that have changed things?)
  • What would you like to steal or try, or (rephrased for serious groups) what did you find particularly interesting?
  • [Sometimes, for narrowly subject-specific groups: how does it relate to established key themes]

I don’t do this for everything I read or watch. Ephemerality is nice too, and days are brief. For short stories, this framework can be overkill, and I have the whole three-moods reading project for them anyway. In the observation journal, I often just list “Five Things To Steal” (here’s the tag), or look for larger patterns as a separate exercise.

But I do keep a running collection of general notes this way — especially for reading groups and for books I plan or hope to discuss with someone! The full suite of questions is excellent for having things to say, and remembering what they were. I’ve used notes from 5 years ago without anyone realising I had not reread the book (and without losing any debates)

Bookmarks for a class (this is the Terribly Earnest phrasing)