A selection of old notebooks © C A Lovegrove

I have a confession to make. I’m a scribbler, and always have been. Not on any old surface though, oh no – just on paper. And not just on any old scrap of paper but in notebooks.

I’m not at all fussy. Not for me beautifully presented Moleskine journals which I’d be reluctant to touch, let alone mark with anything but a fountain pen or a goose quill trimmed with a penknife and dipped in oak gall ink.

No, cheap notebooks with rough surfaced pages, ruled and margined, are my stock in trade. French cahiers,  packs of exercise books purchased from high street stationers or corner shops, old school jotters surplus to requirements – I’ve treasured them all. And I’ve happily scribbled in all of them.

Scribbled notes on genealogies and chronologies for Joan Aiken’s ‘Midwinter Nightingale

So many words we use which derive from or are related to Latin scribere, ‘to write’ – scribe, scripture, description, for example – ultimately come from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to carve’; this doubtless reflects the fact that early writing was on clay, wood, wax or stone. The Latin scribillare, from which we get ‘scribble’, implied rough work, jottings, hurried or careless writing. Or in my case that means trying to get my loose thoughts, speculations and visualisation onto paper, specifically a noyebook. I also like the fact that ‘scribble’ is so onomatopoeic – you can almost hear the scritching of the pencil, pen or ballpoint on the papery surface.

Though I know many reviewers favour them, I can’t bring myself to resort to Post-its® or other adhesive slips to mark notable passages in their reading matter: first of all, I can easily manage a bookmark but not a book with sheaves of paper sticking out at all angles; secondly, I’m a visual reader and writer and need the spidergrams and other diagrams and charts to help me get a ‘fix’ on what I want to say in, for example, a review or to clarify in my mind what seems to be an author’s intentions. I also like the semi-permanent record that notebooks allow – not the permanent markings in the books themselves, which I’ve railed against before now (as here).

An abomination: scribbles on a copy of Carson McCullers’ ‘Ballad of the Sad Café

Most of my notebook scribblings were, and remain, related to the ideas I found and still find in fiction and nonfiction; a significant proportion were concerned with organising ideas, key words and points for essays at school or articles for a magazine, and now for the odd bit of creative writing and, mostly, blog reviews. And what do they consist of? Well, all the usual jottings familiar to note-takers at lectures using the technique sometimes known as active listening – but in this case it’s active reading.

  • Principal characters and related individuals, drawn out as family trees or sociograms
  • Key phrases and quotes which seem to me to approach the nub of what the author is getting at
  • Broad themes that may (or mayn’t) be explicit; parallels with myths, tale types, traditions in certain cultures; similarities or differences with other literary works; memes that seem to drift in and out of popular culture
  • Chronologies: what happened when, which events or encounters happened in flashback, historical background details, and so on
  • Maps, especially of imaginary regions, as described in the text, as far as I can reconstruct them; ditto structures, routes taken, architectural details, anything in fact which places the narrative in one or more locations, structures or even mental state; a kind of psychogeography
Sketch of Arkham’s street plan, by H P Lovecraft for stories in his Cthulhu Mythos

These then are the broad headings I work under in my scribblings: people and places, themes and timelines. And precisely because they are scribblings there will be scratchings-out, arrows to redirect points noted, additions, marginal notes and all the rest.

So, is this how you also ‘read’? Does any of this reflect in any way your own workings? Are you too an ‘active reader’ with a stash of notebooks, or do you (as admittedly I sometimes do) just sit down to enjoy the narrative – whether on audiobook, on e-reader, through streamed media or indeed in a physical book? Do let me know!

31 thoughts on “Scribblings

  1. Wonderful post, Chris! In theory I would love to be a scribbler, but I tend to do reading on the go, while doing other things and not hands-free — so I generally miss those opportunities to reflect and ponder through writing and drawing. However, your images are so intriguing I may reconsider. It would be a good practice for me to sit down and focus on a book at times.

    I do write in nonfiction books that I am reading primarily for information. It helps me retain what I read and pick out the important points when I want to go back to it later. But the more “artistic” and imaginative the work is, the less I feel able to deface it by writing. Creating a separate notebook to scribble in would be an ideal alternative. Problem for me is that I tend to start notebooks and then forget where I put them, or be unable to put my hands on them when I want them, so I need some system for that.

    Happy scribbling!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do understand that when one’s on the go it’s hard to stop and take notes, so I do sympathise! Easy for me as a retiree but it’s a habit I’ve always had, a notebook on a bedside table or, latterly, in a man bag I might take with me. But it may not be an ideal strategy for you, I can see that!

      My problem is I’m quite poor at sequencing in my head – I’m rubbish with retaining directions or remembering shopping lists so have to rely on written instructions – and so having a visual aide-mémoire is how I best function. As a musician I have a degree of skill with sight-reading music but muscle memory only goes so far when it comes to me playing pieces by heart.

      So it’s back to scribbling for me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a tabber, be it posh sticky tabs, torn bits off larger post-its, or scraps of paper to mark pages I want to return to. I prefer to be as immersed as possible in the book. But sometimes I will start a draft blog post with some points to consider that I may forget before the end of the book – which is the equivalent of scribbling I suppose. I should scribble – I have many lovely blank notebooks around the house.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, is ‘tabber’ the term? We live and learn, that’s one to remember! 🙂 I think if I wasn’t so tactile sensitive I’d be a tabber myself (autocorrect tried to change this to ‘tanner’), though I may find organising those points into some sort of order for a review problematic; but then my reviews increasingly turn out to be mini-essays, and that’s potentially problematic too. 🙄

      Still, good luck with those virginal notebooks, Annabel, I’d be reluctant to besmirch them when they can look so classy!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All those notebooks, Chris! It’s clear that you take this blogging thing seriously, and your mini-essays are always crammed with details and insights that make me wonder if we read the same book.

    When I was teaching, I kept notebooks for each course, where I wrote lecture notes, after-class debriefings, reminders, and theoretical musings on the course content. I had other notebooks for faculty admin stuff — meetings, deadlines, assessment and certification requirements (which were changing constantly), to-do lists, etc. I often thought I should just have one notebook with me, all the time, for everything, and thus it would all be in one place and automatically organized chronologically, but never took that logical step. Upon retirement, I found great enjoyment in tossing the lot of them.

    As for “notes while reading”, I’m an occasional tabber and in-text scribbler. It’s the only way to keep everything where I can find it next time I might need it, including rereads. Most of the time, however, I just read, willing to accept the fact that 2 days after finishing a book, I probably won’t even remember its title. Writing a review for my blog extends the experience/memory for a few days, perhaps even weeks, but not indefinitely.

    A few years ago I starting noting the titles/authors of books I’ve read (but not DNFs). That’s one notebook that I keep on my desk and scribble in weekly. Easy reference to remind myself that I haven’t wasted a month — if nothing else, I think, look at all the books I’ve read! [smug pat-on-back]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a diary too when teaching, Lizzie, with plenty of blank pages for notes on meetings etc just as you had, and just like you I took great delight in binning them when I retired! My reading notes I don’t bin, especially in case I plan to reread a book or start a sequel – often the chronology and relationships I’ve charted especially prove helpful.

      Lists of what you’ve read: if no one else is going to do it you might as well pat yourself on the back – smugly or otherwise! – as you see what you’ve accomplished! I use Goodreads Reading Challenge to record what I’ve read over any given year, and do the smug thing when I see all the covers and all the authors and genres I’ve managed to complete and review. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I’m a fellow notebook addict, though I’ve not always used them to accompany my reading. However, I recently decided that it was more productive to use a notebook rather than endless sticky tabs and it’s working a lot better as I can list quotes, make notes and write comments in it. As for actually *writing* in my books – shudder….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Listing quotes and making notes” in a notebook makes you an Honourable Scribbler of course, Karen, a late convert or not! Writing in books though should be as much a heinous crime as, oh I don’t know, maybe partying during a pandemic lockdown and then lying about it? IMHO of course. 😬

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, don’t discard, Jane, I look through my old notes from years, even decades, ago and learn so much about myself and my views of what I’ve read! (Luckily I largely concur with what my younger self noted, phew…) And then, yes, those margins come in handy for additional comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This explains how you write such informative reviews! I was a scribbler, especially as a student of any age both as a child and an adult. Now I think I associate it with study so don’t tend to make notes when I’m reading for reviewing purposes. However I do a bit of frantic scribbling when I’ve finished a book while it’s all still fresh in my mind. Now I’m wondering if I should adopt your approach Chris as I think my reviews would improve if I did so. My scribbling would not be as organised as yours I’m sure! Loved reading this post though, thank you.


    1. Thanks, Anne, I too like to think they are informative but I worry that my reviews turn into self-indulgent ramblings! Still if one can’t be self-indulgent on one’s own blog, then where… 😁

      I get the impression that you, like many reviewers, have a mental template for what you might want to say about a book and how you might say it, and that you’re composing the review in your head while you’re reading it; it’s how I work with certain titles that I really don’t need to take any notes for because the review sort of writes itself into my mental template.

      So if you’ve managed without organised scribbling – and I enjoy how you give really coherent and positive overviews of the books you blog about – I wouldn’t necessarily advise you should change your approach!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are spot on about having a mental template although I’d never really thought of it as such before. Thank you for your kind words about my reviews, Chris, you’ve started my Friday off with a smile!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I had trouble when I got to college because I didn’t write in books, so I taught myself to make at least a few stars or brackets in the margin. My professors urged me to write actual words in the margin, to react and to argue, but I have never been very good at that. For the 35 years I taught college classes, I urged my students to write in books or at least to underline and put a sticky note so they could engage in critical thinking and find the page again when it was time to put their thoughts together.

    When I started blogging I began doing what still works for me, which is dog-earing any page that elicits a reaction (in library books it’s a sticky note).

    I think I’d be a better writer if I scribbled in notebooks, but my tendency is to close off discussion prematurely, so the act of scribbling would probably keep me from elaborating. Marking the page and writing about it later seems to hit the sweet spot for me as often as anything can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We all have our own ways of note-taking, Jeanne, so I wouldn’t dream of censuring the way you work or what you advise your students – though I suppose that’d be one reason why I’d always be a maverick student or academic. (And there are many reasons!)

      So, to pick up a couple of your points. Scribbling in copies: I always use a soft pencil when I write in music scores, whether my own or a library copy, so the same would apply for a text; personally speaking, a faint line down the side of a passage has worked for me, one that I or another reader could erase without injuring the book.

      Dog-earing, like marking in permanent ink, is complete anathema to me for texts, but as a piano accompanist I admit to folding up alternate page corners in score for easy page-turning during rehearsals and performances. And then folding back down afterwards… You see, I’m not consistent! But somehow I regard printed matter in the form of books as sacrosanct.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I wish it reflected how I read and take notes! Sadly my notes are purely text and mostly a brief summary of the plot, to aid my appalling memory when I come to write the review. Occasionally they include my feelings about the book as I read. But I love all your diagrams, especially the maps! I never really have that sense of a geography in my head while I read and I think that often it really would add to appreciation to have a feeling of how places connect. I completely agree with you about the abomination of underlining and making notes in books, but admit to the use of post-it notes for marking passages that I might use as quotes. I’m going to make a determined effort with the next book I read to try to emulate your shining example and be a bit more creative in my note taking – we’ll see if my organisational skills and artistic talents are up to the task. Personally, I doubt it! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you don’t get the impression that I think everyone should work at reviewing this way, only that it works for me. And anyway it would be tedious if everybody worked to a template of how to write reviews, wouldn’t it! As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m a visual reader so I need maps and plans as a self-generated guide to the virtual labyrinth that each novel or study presents, or I get lost…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have been a lifelong journal keeper. But they are certainly not scholarly notebooks; more narcissistic ramblings. But sometimes I come upon an account of a book I have forgotten and try to find it again. How much time should one allow for re reading?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Narcissistic ramblings” is good, certainly my reviews contain a fair proportion of these! Time for rereading? Whenever the mood takes one, I’d suggest – for me it’s sometimes suggested by a meme or prompt or anniversary, but just as often when I get a whiff of nostalgia up my metaphorical nose… 😁

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  9. This is fascinating.

    I love notebooks too but I must admit I have at least a couple there’s no way I will ever write in, they’re far too nice. I couldn’t imagine marking them at all, which I suppose isn’t the point of having them really.

    I like the idea of sketching out maps as you read because sometimes, especially when I’m reading fantasy, I do miss the inclusion of a map, I just never thought to try and create one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too have a couple of those beautifully bound notebooks, gifted for some occasion or other, but which I can’t bear to disfigure. They’re like those volumes entitled ‘The Wit and Wisdom of [insert name of politician or other public figure]’ or ‘The Book of Nothingness’ which are filled with blank pages… Meanehile, maps are brilliant for orienting oneself in the action. Fantasies, in particular, needn’t be obliged to include them but I do like any excuse to do my own!

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  10. Lovely post, and I wish I would be this engaged with each of my reads, but with me it really varies. I never underline things in books, though small pencil marks at the edge of lines have made their way in to a few volumes (like Zweig’s Montaigne) where so much stood out to me; I do use post it notes of various sizes depending on whether I wish to write something that struck me or simply indicate a passage or line, or slips of loose paper placed in the book where I’ll have my notes. And there are times (a lot of the time lately when so much else is on mind) when I just read and rely on what I’ve taken in, when it comes down to writing out my thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many secondhand academic titles are covered in distracting markings which I find makes them unreadable, Mallika, but light erasable pencil marks at the side of a passage don’t count as mortal sins in my opinion! 😊 But as I’ve said elsewhere here there is the occasional review I’ve committed straight to a post without either copious or scant notes – it depends on the book, doesn’t it?

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  11. A fountain pen, classy! I haven’t used one in ages though I’ve still got a couple hanging around. No bottles of Quink though…

    It looks like Post-its, slips of paper and notebooks are proving the most common ways of keeping tabs on key points, quotes and the rest. I usually have a selection of bookmarks, mostly from bookshops, to hand if I’m not taking notes, though postcards are my standbys to keep my place when there’s a pause in reading.

    Like you I occasionally compose directly online without need of notes if the review almost writes itself – WordPress’s block editor was ideal for this once I’d got used to the format.


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