Donnerstag, 5. Januar 2012

A note on taking notes

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
These are the first words in my new notebook, written on the first page, directly under the headline Hamlet.
Yes, I chose Hamlet to be my first read in 2012, of course in regard of Allie's Shakespeare reading month and I will probably finish it the day after tomorrow. Anyway, the focus of this post lies not on the poor prince of Denmark but on a simple word in the second line: notebook.
I am, for the very first time in my life, taking notes on a book (a play in fact, but since I am reading it I am going to count it as a book).

My infamous notebook
Never before have I bothered to do this, not even for the books my literature teacher made me read, I thought it would be enough to read and ponder them and now I find myself questioning the reading habits that served me well for many, many years.
After all I have already filled four pages with notes on Hamlet, and I am only halfway through Act IV. But back to the beginning: I decided to try and take notes for once because it is Shakespeare, the master of masters of literature. His plays cover so many aspects, their content is so diverse and facts which seem obviously true in Act II are often more than questionable in Act III. That's why I thought it would be a good idea to keep track of my impressions by writing down excerpts from the play which seem important to me and commenting them.
The concept behind it was the aim to truly get everything out of Hamlet: to understand every monologue and all the characters's intentions.

A noble aim perhaps, but of course doomed to failure.
Trying to do something perfectly never brings anything good, and while I feel that I am diving deep into Hamlet and understand a great part of it (at least I hope so, because as far as I am into it it's marvellous) I definitely do not understand every facet, there are undoubtedly motives in the play which I do not even notice.

Some of my notes on Hamlet

Anyway, the idea of taking notes was a good one nonetheless because taking notes forces me to pause in my reading and think about what I've just read. This may sound obvious but it isn't, as I experienced when I reached the famous: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".
I wanted to write this down because it is so famous and also because it sounds beautiful, but the context took away all its magic. In fact this sentence is just Hamlet's way of telling Horatio that his father actually has returned as a ghost: it is a simple explanation, of no special importance to the play.
In the end I wrote it down nevertheless because out of context the quote is mysterious and carries only the distant echo of some heavenly knowledge, and there is little human beings seem to like better than something that is heavy with an indecipherable meaning.

Ultimately I think that excerpting important passages helps me to understand Shakespeare better, but I cannot say if I will keep this new habit up when I read novels again: it slows my reading down and is sometimes a little uncomfortable, as far as having to think can be uncomfortable; after all I can only take notes if I understand everything.

How about you? Do you ever take notes when you are reading?


  1. I frequently take notes when I'm reading. I find it a good way to remember my thoughts on a book or quotes I especially like. I've been taking more on my computer lately, but I do have a couple notebooks I use as well. It does slow me down, so sometimes I just make note of a page number or stick a post-it note on the page so that I can return to a passage later.

  2. As I have gotten older, more and more often I mark my own books up in pen. With library books I use post-it notes and other scraps of paper to save my place so that I can ponder and return to the passages I liked. I love your idea of writing your thoughts and favorite bits into a notebook specifically reserved for this purpose. What a treasure to read over the next time you read Hamlet! It will be so much fun to see the different parts that speak to you with each book and each reading.

    Your post reminds me of this passage I marked in Chapter V my copy of Les Miserables this morning:

    "Sometimes in the midst of his reading, no matter what book he might have in his hands, he would suddenly fall into deep meditation, and when it was over, write a few lines on the open page. These lines often have no connection with the book in which they are written"

    That's one of the joys of reading, is it not? The thoughts and feelings it frees and stirs up within us.

  3. I think it's great that you take notes! I have notebooks filled with thoughts and observations from reading for my project list. It helps me reflect on what I am reading and connect the dots a bit more.

  4. I usually stick post-it notes with a word or a thought on passages that stand out to me or ones I want to remember. Later flipping through those notes turns out to be really helpful.
    Love your notebook, btw. Such a beautiful cover.

  5. It sounds like you are keeping a commonplace book. That cover if gorgeous! I need to do this eventually. So far I just keep my booksh thoughts on my blog and Goodreads...

    I LOVE Hamlet. I read it for the first time last year. Hope you enjoy it! Shakespeare was like a blockbuster movie maker, methinks. ;-)

  6. Sometimes I really want to but I just find it too hard. I rarely feel that I need to when I am reading fiction I have to admit, but it would be nice if I could be organised to take some notes as soon as I finish the book. Sometimes I find myself so behind on reviews that I have to try and remember my reaction to the book when I first read it.

    I was reading a book called Telaking about Detective Fiction and i wanted to take notes every couple of paragraphs, but then I feel like I am losing the momentum of the book

  7. Thank you for your kind comments, everyone! I find it very interesting to compare my ways of reading with yours, it`s fascinating how we all read the same words and yet they awake different thoughts in us.
    I have an obsession with notebooks, there are at least ten very beautiful (and expensive, I am afraid) notebooks resting on my shelves but I barely use them, so I think I will keep up taking notes to finally fill them :)
    However, I probably won't take them as intensely as for Hamlet again, that was pretty exhausting.

    And Jillian: thank you, I loved it although it almost made me cry.

  8. Yes and no. Sometimes. It depends. Let me say at first that my kind of "taking notes" is for sure NOT the kind of taking notes that you think of.
    Normally, I can comprehend and memorize books - in general everything I read - very easily. However, reading pieces of literature, like Shakespear's work, or getting across a very difficult book, I tend to take notes in one way or another.
    I never take notes while I am reading, but sometimes I do summarize what I have read after finishing a chapter. If the relationships in a book are difficult to understand, I take a piece of paper and try to build up a kind of family tree. If a certain sentence or scene catches my attention, if they raise my interest, I will either note the page number or put a piece of paper between the pages. After having finished reading, I will write down that sentence or quote.
    As I mentioned above, however, this probably isn't the kind of answer you are interested in.