Keep an Academic Reading Journal

Aside from partying, the thing you’re probably going to do most in college is read. Assuming you’re at all serious about your education, you’ll read so much that words will come out your ears. Unfortunately, much of what you read will also go pouring out your ears, or so it will seem looking back.

One of the best habits you can develop in college — or even in high school, if you have the discipline — is to keep an academic reading journal. This is more or less what it sounds like: a journal recording everything you read, with an added layer of academic analysis. The idea is, you record what you read, key ideas and quotes from the text, and your own reflections on the work, allowing you to fairly accurately recreate your initial reading at a later date, pershaps a much later date.

Why do this? There are several reasons. First, because if you’re smart, you’ll use material from one class as source material for research papers in later classes, and it’s better to have that material at hand rather than having to re-read the book. Second, because you will often come across the same material, or material bythe same author, later in your education, and can go back and review your initial impressions. And third, because while much of what you’re being asked to read now mightnot seem fairly relevant, you’ll be surprised, 10, 20, or more years down the line what you find yourself wishing you could remember of some book or article you read as a sophomore.

Creating the Academic Reading Journal

An academic reading journal doesn’t  have to be anything fancy — in theory, a composition book or notepad will suffice, provided it’s durable enough to last many years. Even better, a hardbound diary or Moleskine-style journal will give you plenty of space in a durable format. If you’re technologically inclined, a personal wiki, word processor file, or even database can be used on your PC. When I was doing my dissertation research (which requires you to read literally everything in your research area) I kept a reading journal in an Access database, synced to a database program on my Palm PDA. The point is, you’ll have to figure out the medium that’s most comfortable for you, comfortable enough that you’ll use it consistently.

There is no standard for what an academic reading journal entry should look like, but I recommend capturing the following pieces of information:

  • A full bibliographic citation. Use whatever style is prevalent in your field, or whatever you know best: MLA, APA, or anything else. It doesn’t matter, so long as you make sure to get all the pieces of  information you’ll need to produce a bibliography in any style necessary.
  • A short synopsis of the book or article. This can be copied from the back cover text or abstract, or just sketched out in your own words.
  • Quotes from your reading. Copy out any quotes you would otherwise highlightor underline — anything you think captures some essential point in the text. You don’t have to do this as you read, if you prefer to read with a highlighter or underliner — copy them out when you’re done, in that case. Make sure you get the page number(s).
  • A personal response to your reading. 200 or so words capturing your impression of what you’ve read. Why is it important (or not important)? Whatis the author trying to say? Who was influenced by it, or influenced it?Have a look at my post How to Read Like a Scholar for more advice on academic reading.
  • Questions raised by the text. Challenge your reading material! Think of a set of questionsthe material leaves unanswered, or that undermine the conclusions reached. These questions might eventually form the basis of a research project or larger critique.
  • Any other notes, thoughts, arguments, or feelings about what you’ve read.

When I started keeping a reading journal using a Moleskine a couple years ago, Iprinted out a template that I kept in the back pocket to remind me of what I should include in my entries.

One last thing

While non-fiction is my bread-and-butter, and thus this post might have seemed to lean more towards academic material, don’t hesitate to include fiction and poetry among the books in your reading journal. The truths in fiction are often — maybe even usually — more true than the truths in non-fiction. Shakespeare’s truths trump Einstein’s over and over — after all, we’ve revised our understanding of relativity, but Hamlet will forevermore have been poisoned and killed in the Great Hall at Elsinore.

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