Why and How to Keep a Reading Journal

A reading journal is a great tool readers can use to keep track of what they’ve read. It works as a dated log, or reading diary. By keeping your own reading journal, you can record your reactions to what you read. This gives you a way to remember what you thought about certain characters and can lend insight into motifs, themes, and plotlines.

Why Keep a Reading Journal?

While many people employ reading journals when in college studying classic literature, it’s just as helpful to readers of all sorts of genres. Whether you like reading crime novels, romance, horror, apocalyptic stories, or a healthy mix of all of these, a reading log can add to your enjoyment and your comprehension of the books you read.

Imagine looking back over the past year and revisiting your thoughts and ideas about what happened in each book you read. It’s like getting to revisit all of those characters you love so dearly, if only briefly. If, for example, you read Stone Cold and kept a log of your reactions to each portion that you read each day, you could look over your journal months later to glean insight into the characters and themes before reading Chasing the Dead. Sometimes you can find symbolism and themes within novels that were not intended by the author.

For instance, Tolkien famously implored that his work, The Lord of the Rings, was “not to be understood allegorically”. In fact, even though a Catholic, Tolkien is said to have disliked “even the allegorical children’s stories of his friend and fellow Christian C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. Yet, many people think of Tolkien’s trilogy as a fundamentally spiritual and religious work. Readers can find many allegorical parallels to religion and spirituality throughout his work. In other words, Tolkien could not escape what was so ingrained in him as a man, even within the pages of his fantastical novels. A journal would help you keep track of these unintended themes and motifs.

After years of contributing to a reading diary, you’ll have a way to gain deeper awareness into how your tastes have changed, or remained the same, over the years.

How to Keep a Reading Journal

So, now that I’ve convinced you, how should you go about keeping a reading journal?

  • Pick a journal. Do you want a traditional bound journal, or do you want to record your thoughts and reactions electronically? If you keep your journal online, make sure to backup your log to a jump drive or the cloud just in case. Better safe than sorry. If you choose to go the traditional route, you can buy a simple spiral notebook or opt for a higher quality moleskin or leather-bound one. There are also journals available that are made specifically as reading logs.
  • Include an entry header.  Date your entries and include author name and book title at the beginning of each. Dating the entries is very important. When you revisit what you’ve written, you’ll want to the date. Life events and occurrences can greatly influence what you think and feel about a certain book. Knowing the dates for each entry can lend insight into why you felt a certain way about a character or plotline when looking back over what you wrote. Including the author and book title with each entry shouldn’t require much explanation. You’ll need this information when looking over your impressions.
  • Note page numbers. If you record favorite or interesting quotes in your journal, write down the page number and maybe even paragraph number where you found the excerpt. Depending on genre, some authors may include words and phrases unique to the story. You may want to record these as well. Patrick Rothfuss’ book, The Name of the Wind, includes different weekday names, such as Cendling and Mourning. You may want to jot these down in your journal to keep track of them. Likewise, in my books, I refer to real-life places in the Kansas City area. It’s a great idea to make a note of these and record the page numbers as well, especially if you think you may visit the area at some point.
  • Take notes as you read. When you come across interesting passages and sections that leave a significant impression on you, it’s a good idea to pause and write your thoughts about it immediately. Your insights may change by the end of the book, or you may forget how that particular section made you feel. Write it down immediately. You don’t have to write formally – a sentence or two will usually suffice.
  • Record technical elements. Was the book edited well? Or, did you find a smattering of typos and unintended grammatical errors? What different types of viewpoint did the author use? Which ones worked best for you? Did the author use metaphors and similes?
  • Final impact of the story. At the end of the book, take some time to record the overall impact the story had on you. Did the story flow well and keep you riveted in the characters’ world until the very end? Or, did it feel stilted and contrived? What impact did the characters have, if any, on you personally? Strong characters can make lasting impressions on readers’ behaviors and thought processes. Write down whether the characters made this type of impression on you.

Once you’ve developed the habit of keeping a reading journal, you’ll begin to see real and specific ways in which the practice can help you have a more enjoyable reading experience. Have you ever kept a reading journal? Do you have any other things to add to my list on how to keep a reading log? Share your experiences and ideas with me.


Photo credit: fimby [dot] tougas [dot] net

3 Responses to “Why and How to Keep a Reading Journal”

  1. Chris Wolak

    Nice post! I’ve been keeping a reading journal on and off for years using different formats. Got a bit lazy due to Goodreads, but this year am back to keeping a handwritten journal. I love looking back on old entries.

    • JoelGoldmanAuthor2

      Hi Chris,

      I bet it is interesting to look back, especially if you’ve been keeping a journal for years. Have you ever re-read a book you journaled years before and seen any marked difference in your perceptions and feelings about the story and characters?


      • Chris Wolak

        Oh, yes, sometimes it’s like reading a completely different book. I’ve re-read Willa Cather a lot and her novels always seem fresh when I go back to them. Once, however, I learned that I had already read a book that I had no memory of reading (it was during the frantic reading years of graduate school)–Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe. Apparently I enjoyed it both times, even if he had disowned the novel.