Writing About What We Read
In 1888, young Amy Lowell was given a class assignment to write out and then answer a long list of questions. The questions were designed to explain who she was (and perhaps test her spelling — all the following mistakes are hers), starting with her name and residence, and then moving on to “What is your favorite moral caracterestic?? (Her answer: “Self controll ”); “What caracter (male) in all of history do you most dislike?” (Her answer: Nepolitan Bonaparte”); “Who is your favorite heroin?” (Her answer: “Jo (in Little Women); and on and on.
One of the final questions dictated to young Amy was “what is your favorite exercise?” Her answer was “books.”
I totally agree with her.
Last week, I lost my voice. For five days, I could not say a word. It was frustrating for me (I had to miss a weekend at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, which I had been looking forward to for months, and could only make myself “heard” through foot stomping and handwritten notes) but I decided to use my silence and suddenly free weekend to get started on a project I had been asked to undertake by my local library. I was tasked with providing a list of 100 books I think all my townspeople should read. Easy peasy, I thought to myself. I went back to the list of my favorite books from my year of reading a book a day, and also consulted the list of read books I keep in a journal.
I was not expecting to find such comfort in revisiting my year of reading. What an extraordinary feeling it was to re-read all the reviews I wrote over that year — and what’s more, I was surprised by how vividly I remembered each book I had read.
But when I turned to my journal listing books I’ve read since finishing up my year of reading, just a simple list of titles and authors, the feeling of euphoria I’d felt in re-reading the reviews was missing. I could remember most of the books — sort-of.
The lesson here: books — and — reading — are most certainly exercise, and as far as I’m concerned, the best exercise going (tennis comes in a close second). But writing about what we read is as vital to the experience of reading (and the exercise of reading) as is the reading. By jotting down what we feel while reading, what impressions we take away, and what sort of lesson or observation or insight we discovered in the book or short story or poem, we remember so much better the transformative experience of reading. We absorb the transformation deeply by having to articulate it; we pay witness to the change wrought by the act of reading, and we memorialize it, not only on paper but in our minds.
Book group discussions have the same benefit of writing about what we read but cannot replace the journaling. I am recommitting myself to writing about every book I read, not for public consumption as I did during my year of reading a book a day but as a private way of keeping track of my life. And down the line, when I look back at my diary of a life of reading, it will be as if I could reread all the great books all over again. No better exercise than that.