Bibliography – Part 2 – Keeping track of your reading

Obviously, the mountain of books that awaits the researcher, especially in humanities, requires a certain organization. And I’m not saying it’s acquired overnight, far from it. As with many things, it’s often necessary to recognize its usefulness first before considering putting it into practice. It can take much longer than finding a method that works!

© Brandon Lopez

I confess that it took me some time myself. But I soon came to think that my “don’t take notes and hope I remember the essentials” technique needed a hell of an improvement. So I had a habit, which I now find despicable, of folding the corners of interesting pages, as I saw my mother doing with the catalogues when she planned her purchases. How many splendid works I have thus blasphemed! Even so, the waste of time was considerable. So I ended up writing in pencil in the margins of books, thinking romantically that I was thus imitating a practice that dates back to the copyist monks who slipped jokes from time to time in books that they had to painfully rewrite by hand.

I tried this «technique» for a long time, replacing the folding with post-its, then sheets of drafts serving as a bookmark, which were going, as I progressed, to be soon covered with my notes. So I ended up with books in a lamentable state, with quite often a large number of loose sheets that were protruding in all directions, frequently lost in the bottom of my bags or my desk, without ever being able to find out with which book they were going. Not to mention the mess created when the book was borrowed from the library and one day I had to remove all my sheets, usually in total chaos, stuffing them all in my bag under the dumbfounded gaze of the librarian.

It was my entry into the master’s degree that motivated me to reform my organization at all concerning the taking of notes of my readings to keep an indelible trace. But I had to make several attempts to get to the system I am using today, which I’m fully satisfied with. Of course, I will describe my personal method to you as thoroughly as possible, but I must say that it’s in no way a rule or an obligation to succeed (the proof is that I did very well without for years without being penalized!). It goes without saying that you are free to adapt it to suit your specific needs and preferences. Having said that, I appreciate it because it allows me to work with both “paper” and “digital” books, and it has been tested in a lot of crazy conditions.

The first of the rules that I set for myself is that I must use, whatever happens, good old paper and a pen. The paper pencils fade over time if they’re not treated and I made the painful experience of losing all my precious files on computer AND hard drive by having the stupidity of carrying them together one day.

© Debby Hudson

My personal method

These precautions taken I start by making a first sheet before even opening the book. I write on what I call “the essentials”:
– the title
– the name of the author (or authors if more than one)
– the date of first publication
– date of this publication (yes yes, because this is also important)
– the publishing house.

Then I will also write the context of the reading, that is to say:
– why I read the book originally (if I was advised, if I read it for pleasure, if it’s for a particular assignment, if I found it in another bibliography and it seemed relevant to me, etc.)
– where did I get this book (bought, borrowed from the library, from a friend and if so which, etc.)
– on what dates I read it and under what conditions.

It may seem unnecessarily tedious, especially since I have to take the trouble to write it at every break, but if I read a book at a time when I was otherwise ill or the day before an exam for example, I always notice that the quality of my notes is affected. Moreover, as regards reading conditions, it’s also for reasons of self-assessment. Because reading quietly in your garden in the shade of a tree on a Sunday is quite different from reading standing in the subway at rush hour on a Monday morning running to work. It may not affect you, but my notes and comments on what I’m reading are quite different, I assure you.

Then I write a quick review of the author, his nationality, his date of birth, death, if it’s an author who comes back often, I also take the trouble to note the major events of his life around the publication of the book I’m reading (yes, because it happens that the one believed stubborn and staunch on his positions changes his opinion at all after getting married!), if it’s relevant, I also note his profession, the kind of book, see the context of his writing (a one-night pamphlet and a novel that took a lifetime to write, it’s definitely not the same thing to me…). Possibly, I note if necessary some notions around the context of the time (in general when it’s an era that’s not familiar to me).

After that, the actual reading can begin, so I set out to read with a block of sheets of paper and a pen always at hand, regardless of the situation. I use only the front of the sheets originally because I use scrap sheets (I mean already printed on the back), but I find that it also gains in clarity and practicality when I have to handle them. Each sheet top is surmounted by a kind of header where I scrupulously write the title of the book, the author, the year, and the sheet number it is, out of the total number (which I would write at the end). I thus take my notes calmly, as I read them, noting the page numbers, the key words, the quotations clearly identified, and if my reading gives me an idea that has nothing to do with it, I write it with a star instead of a dash. I thus fill in as many sheets as my reading demands, thus filling in as I move through the pages, which allows me to have a chronological view. I write in abbreviation occasionally, but I take care that even a stranger can understand my notes (provided he speaks the same langage than me when I’ve taken my notes), because I know from experience that I sometimes feel like I’m rereading a stranger’s notes when I reread my own notes if I’m not careful…

At the end of the reading, I write on a new sheet a quick global summary of what I thought of the book and a completely subjective appreciation, then I carefully reread all the notes I have taken from the beginning. When I’m done, I usually have many more details to add, to which I dedicate a new sheet still very specific. I then put the whole, presentation sheet, review of the author and the context of the book, my notes, my summary and my final remarks, in a single plastic pouch, which is put in a binder. The filing binders, which may be unfortunate, are not in a specific order, but in the order in which I read them. Maybe it’s sound weird, but it still helps me to find my way. There was a time when I took the trouble to highlight my notes in different colour codes, and even one where I painfully typed them on the computer, causing me a long, painful, and I must admit, totally useless work.

The method I have presented to you is obviously only mine, which corresponds to my own needs, it’s quite possible that it does not suit you. If only because I developed it with the intention of making as little effort as possible, the results obtained are only maximum for the objectives I have set for myself personally. And to answer the questions, yes I do that also with the novels or any other book I read for fun, because I learned that all my readings have something to teach me, even if it’s not something I will use right away. Moreover, this method allows me to remember more surely everything I read, which is a particularly pleasant side effect!


Excellent reading to everyone and see you soon!

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