Reading journals

Several times over the years I’ve tried to write down thoughts about whatever it is I’ve been reading. That always ends up in a disaster, as at some point I just get very immersed and forget I was supposed to write about what I was reading.

Long time ago one of my teachers gave out an assignment to us to write a reading journal and then an essay about the book using the journal as basis. I read the book alright, but my notes took the entirety of five lines in my notebook and were pretty much useless in my essay.

“This book starts off mighty boring.”

While writing the sentence above it might feel like the most observant thing anyone has said about the literary work described. It’s really of no use, though.

Although the book might be boring as f***, there ought to be something more you can say about it. Off the top of my head at least a ‘why’-question might be necessary. Yeah, that never pops up when I’m actually doing one of these journals.

“Pace picks up at page X.”

So what happens then? Then you actually start getting engrossed in the book. This is usually the point when I stop writing for about 100 or so pages, just because … I’m actually reading the book.

This is usually the point where I totally forgot the point of the entire reading journal thingie. I mean, if you want to get kids to read, just give them an interesting book they’re likely to like and let them read it. If you want to make sure they don’t really enjoy it but also to make sure they’ve got proof they sorta read it, make them write a journal about it.

“I like how Y behaves about themselves.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d really want to be able to write one of these analytical, witty reading journals that some of my classmates were able to write at 6th grade. I just can’t.

Just analyzing what I read can be a bit of a hassle sometimes. Honestly, more often than sometimes. Fiction is one of those things I just can’t make myself analyze in too much depth. In my weird inner world, works of fiction are made to be enjoyed (or loathed, like the Paul Auster books I had to read for my entrance exams one year while trying to apply into a university) as they are. They aren’t supposed to be thought about too much. Too much analyzing can destroy the image the writer wanted to portray by writing it just so.

Scientific literature is easier that way. What is written is supposed to make sense and stand up to peer review. If you can’t make sense of it, think of it a bit more, read the sentence again. If you still can’t figure it out, maybe it’s not your field or it really doesn’t make sense. Easy.

“I didn’t really understand this book.”

Yet another one of those sentences that really tells everything and nothing. Bit like that so called essay I wrote about that book. I guess I hid really well that my journal was a stub. The essay didn’t betray the fact, and thank goodness the teacher wasn’t interested in the actual journals.

One book I have to admit (to my immense shame) of falling into this category is Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) by Väinö Linna. Sure, I know what it is about, I know the general flow of the story (show me a Finn who doesn’t know the story at least through the movie and I’ll show you a liar) and I know the central characters. But there is this one spot towards the end of the book where I always get confused who was who and did what. I’ve read Tuntematon maybe five or six times over the years (three times for school) and that same spot always confuses me.

As a granddaughter of a war veteran this is especially embarrassing to admit…

So why do I care about them stupid journals?

I wanted to study language and literature in a university once. I gave up on that dream after I had tried and failed the entrance exams four times for two different universities. While I never got to know what exactly I could have done better for three of those, I know exactly why I failed the fourth one.

I told you earlier about the Auster books I loathed. In the exam I was to write an analysis of the books (The New York trilogy I believe it was). As I absolutely hated them, I of course said so in the essay. I believe that combined with my lack of skill in analysis got me to fail (along with the fact I don’t belong in a certain minority of Finland that is somewhat favored in said university). I never really learned to analyze anything during my Finnish classes in high school – I really didn’t (and still don’t, really) see the point and I wrote prettily enough to hide my lack of skill whenever we had a test on the subject.

After my first failed exams I pushed myself to study the subject twice more for the next time. During that studying it dawned to me I have no idea how to analyze literature. Reading has always been to me a thing of pleasure, and now I was supposed to figure out all those whys and hows. Needless to say that wasn’t taught in any book and I failed twice more. After that I gave up and figured university wasn’t a place for me after all. (Or maybe I should have listened to my English teacher, majored in English and gone to Bruxelles to work for the EU as a translator. Oh well, bygones.)

When I was done wallowing in self pity I thought it’d still be a useful skill to know if I really wanted to write a book (being modest is very me, but being modest about writing isn’t). If I wanted to be a successful writer I should know what really made a good book, right? That got me back to that old task of writing a reading journal. Except that I still didn’t know how I was supposed to do that either.

I get those moments of revelation (you know “Ohhh, I see what you did there, you sly fox you!”) from time to time, but if I intentionally try and read a book and understand why this part is in there or why we’re told about this thing Y, I usually just draw a blank and move on. Dwelling on a specific subject is something I’m definitely not good at, at least when I can think of nothing remotely relevant. You may have noticed something of the sort from my random ramblings…?

Anyway, having forgotten and rethought the point of this blog post for a few times now… Have you written reading journals? How’d you do? Teach me how to do it?

No, really, tell me how you do that.


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