Reading Fast, Writing Slow
On keeping a notebook, copying out passages from your reading, and why it's worth remembering certain things.
Whenever I sit down to read, I make sure that my BOB is nearby. BOB, I should explain, stands for Book of Books, and I copy into it beautiful or noteworthy passages from my reading. Before opening the novel (and releasing, if very lucky, the sticky cracking sound of the cover pulling away from the fresh top page and the spine acquiescing to pressure like your vertebrae popping as you stretch), I open my Book of Books and note the month and year, then I write the title and author. It looks something like this:
March, 2021 “The Way the World Works”, Nicholson Baker
Any time I come across a line I want to remember, I scribble down the page number and then copy it out in full. I always use quotation marks, to remind myself that the thing I’m quoting comes from another’s mind. There is an inherent solipsism to the act of compiling one’s favourite quotations, which we do well to transform from narcissism into necromancy: we are bringing back to life those who have died in body but who, in mind via word, remain in suspended animation, waiting for readers to read them to life. Rewriting their words allows them to live through us for that moment, and to be remembered that much longer. In the case of authors who are still with us, the necromancy is performed on the long-dead moment of inspiration that first gave us the lines now copied out. Returning to my BOB, I see that I probably got the Lazarus idea from Nicholson Baker, who is thankfully still with us and who wrote (in the above-cited book):
p. 48: “As a rule I transcribe the work of people who wrote a long time ago. It is a way of momentarily reanimating them, slowly unwinding their sentential shrouds; it is the only sure way to sense their idiosyncrasies. Sometimes I whisper the words while I copy them.”
I wonder now why I included that last sentence, which switches from the macro view of the act of copying out another’s words to the micro detail about how Baker whispers while he copies. I guess that I kept that seemingly unrelated last sentence because I too whisper the words as I write them out, my lips speaking what the hand traces and the pen forms on the page. I write the sentences down to preserve them physically, and I speak them out loud (well, under my breath) to preserve them in my mind. I am mnemonically like an amateur pianist repeatedly stumbling over the wrong key and saying to my audience, “Wait, let me start again.” I fumble for the name of whoever originally said what I am about to repeat; I grasp for the correct phraseology so I don’t turn a great idea into babble. The only time I have ever been impressive at a dinner party was in 2018, when our guests were discussing literary censorship and I pulled out of my memory the words of Ahmet Altan, a Turkish writer sentenced to life in prison:
“Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name, holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms. I travel the whole world in a prison cell.”
What Altan tells us above is reason enough to preserve the writing we deem important. Impressing one’s guests at a dinner party is a mere bonus. I was only able to recite those words because I had copied them down a few weeks earlier, in my very first BOB. The act of writing out the words, imitating the creative process, and muttering the sentences to myself solidified the slippery liquid of my memory. Someone (I’d remember who if I’d copied it down, but I didn’t) once insisted that the best way to learn a poem is to write it out; it changes the words from received to imbibed. Writing, therefore, is a vital part of deep reading and memory.
What qualifies any particular passage for preservation? There is, of course, the mercantile motive that I may want to use a quotation in an essay one day, or that an idea jotted down in my BOB will inspire a whole piece. (The idea for this essay came out of rediscovering Baker’s words on the subject of commonplace books.) Less prosaically, I will be moved by a thing of beauty whose transcription into my notebook ensures that, for me, it will be a joy forever and will not pass into nothingness. I am, of course, riffing here on a poem from Keats, of which I can recall the first four lines because I once wrote them out, muttering the words as I did. Sometimes, the beautiful bit of writing will be a detail, such as:
July, 2019 “Catch-22”, Joseph Heller p. 176: “Through the lavender gloom clouding the entrance ...”
I underlined “lavender gloom” because it is an exquisitely evocative pairing of words. Gems of this kind, shards of crystalline purity frozen in a phrase, are worth preserving for their own sake. There is real joy in simply re-reading that phrase. Sometimes, I copy out lengthier excerpts, such as:
February, 2020 “Harp”, John Gregory Dunne p. 15: “... there are those for whom words have no meaning until they are down on paper. Clarity only comes when pen is in hand, or at the typewriter or the word processor, clarity about what we feel and what we think, how we love and how we mourn ...”
I copied this out because it told me something true about myself. We readers are built out of the scraps of our reading, our edges described by what others have written, and when we read a line that connects us to ourselves, we cherish it as not only an act of self-recognition but as being recognised by another. The world becomes a little less lonely when someone you’ve never met knows some deep, true part of you and can express it with alien elegance. These connections bridge the lonely distances. When I am particularly lucky, I glance through my BOB and alight on connections between books, the way a butterfly flitting from one flower to another acts as a cross-pollinator. For instance, I skip over a chunk of pages and move in a moment from 2020 to 2022, from the above passage in Harp to Evan Puschak’s Escape into Meaning:
p. 7: “What we normally imagine as ‘thinking’ is really just a distracted form of writing, like having a disoriented drunk at a typewriter behind your eyes. Writing sobers him up.”
Reading widely brings breadth to our map of the world (as I argued in a previous essay); reading that overlaps with other reading brings depth to the world. A well-maintained BOB helps you to find the root ball in which the fundamental ideas of varied books are tangled. It is in these connections that books reinforce and question other books, where they argue and find agreement. It is the job of good readers to host these dialogues in the mind, and to turn them into sustenance for the good – the examined – life. By keeping a Book of Books, you are essentially mapping out the territory of your reading and making the paths between your books that much easier to navigate.
Perhaps you’re thinking that keeping a notebook would slow down your reading. You’re absolutely right, and it’s an upgrade. “Reading is fast, but handwriting is slow,” Baker writes. Epiphanies can occur in the space “between the instant it took the eye to comprehend a writer’s phrase, and the seeming eternity it then takes the hedgehog hand to negotiate that phrase again in legible, physical loops on the notebook page”. While reading, you’ve given the author a chance to posit a thesis; your reading mind becomes half-conscious of a possible antithesis or two; and in the slow space of copying down the words, you come to a synthesis, pulling in closer to full comprehension. You can read quickly and stay near the surface, or slow down and dive deep. Humans aren’t creatures that can do both.
Finally, and in spite of my earlier defiance of solipsism, there is a self-centred reason to keep track of your reading – it keeps track of the person you were. When I open one of my BOBs, I am reacquainted with the person I used to be, who thought this sentence was wonderful or that paragraph worth remembering, who read this sequence of books and in that order, who could only scribble beneath one book’s heading, “This book is a fraud”. In her defence of keeping a notebook, Joan Didion writes:
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
We write to remember those who are no longer here, ourselves and the writers of those words we admire; to memorialise the moments in which those passages were written and the time when we first read them; to breathe new life into old ideas. Keeping a Book of Books worked for Joan Didion and Nicholson Baker, as well as Isaac Newton, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Thomas Jefferson, and many others. If it worked for them, it’s probably an idea worth copying.
• “Narrow Ruled”, in The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker (2012)
• Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
• Harp, John Gregory Dunne (1989)
• Escape into Meaning, Evan Puschak (2022)
• “On Keeping a Notebook”, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion (1968)