Starting a simple book has changed the way I read

A few months ago, thanks to this beautiful post by Ashley Holstrom, I finally started a simple book. A simple book is a collection of quotes from books (or movies, TV shows, etc.). I’ve been looking for a start for a few years, but for some reason it always seemed too scary. Maybe because I’ve been keeping journals since I was 12, I always imagined my future general book as handwritten. I came across stamps and stickers and quotes from my favorite books surrounded by little doodles. Turns out the vision kept me away from a great project, because the moment Ashley reminded me that digital generic books are just as great, I immediately made a start.

I’m using the idea for my general book, and it’s not just as beautiful (in a different way) as a handwritten journal, it’s easily searchable! I can tag quotes, and then browse through the tags, so it’s easy to find all the paragraphs I’ve collected about family, change, transformation, nature, etc. I can also choose a cover photo for each quote, and I’ve discovered that one of my favorite parts of the process is browsing through Unsplas, searching for a photo that captures the gist of the quote. The whole experience was a joy: the whole creative process of creating a book-related journal, not just identifying and transcribing my favorite paragraphs. Maintaining my general book has become one of my favorite book habits.

It’s not surprising to me how much I like it. I’m a record holder at heart, and I love finding new ways to document my reading life, be it through a reading spreadsheet, a weekly newsletter, or, now, a simple book. Which amazes me, though, how keeping a simple book has changed the way I read and the way a book measures how valuable it is to me.

I used to annotate books a lot in my early 20’s, but I used to bother to identify regular paragraphs. Now, I carry a pack of my trusty sticky notes by my side, and the flag passages I want to record later. Sometimes it’s because a sentence is particularly beautiful. Sometimes, especially in nonfiction, it’s a paragraph that I want to come back to, an idea I didn’t finish thinking about. Because whatever it is, I’m always looking for it now. I read more attentively. I let myself slow down a bit. I don’t want to miss anything.

This change in the way I read is a gift. But I also noticed that I started thinking about books in a whole new way. One of my goals for 2022 is to see books where they are – to let a book be what it wants to be, without going through the experience with so many predictable expectations. My general book has helped a lot with this. I find the books valuable not only for the reading experience, but for the paragraphs I collect from them.

Earlier this year I read a book that I was so excited about that I ended up not making love. It wasn’t bad; It just doesn’t wow me. It was a bit repetitive and vague towards the end and I found myself asking for more from it. I’m not sorry to read it; I like it not enough DNF. But I don’t remember much now. Usually a book like this fades into the background, forgotten. In this case, though, I’d mark a bunch of passages to add to my general book – at least five or six, which is a lot for a 150-page book.

As I was transcribing these quotes into my general book, I realized that there was a section in this book that I absolutely loved. The book is not a favorite overall, but the pieces still spoke to me, loud enough that I felt compelled to record them. Without a plain book, those paragraphs would probably fade from my memory, along with the rest of the book. But as I was paying close attention, my experience of that book now is not defined by what gave me, but by the miracle of what it did.

There is nothing like the feeling of falling head-heels for a book. I was a reader who lived an extreme life. I valued my favorite books, and everything else was just that. Now I am a reader who understands that not every book gives the same gift. I still love the feeling of discovering a new all-time favorite, but I appreciate traveling so much now. Bumps along the path. There are some beautiful sentences in those books. I only like bits and pieces of books. Great book. Even books I DNF feel different to me now – because who’s to say I can’t flag a suffocating passage before I decide a book isn’t for me?

I look forward to seeing what else my general book teaches me about reading. For now, I’m grateful for the practice of this new book, which has slowed me down, changed my expectations, and made me realize that finding a perfect sentence in a book is really awesome.

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