Sunday Salon: What’s your review process?

sunsalon1As I look at my battered library copy of Gone with the Wind, littered with as many limp flags as any battlefield, I realize that I haven’t done as quite as good of a job of posting my thoughts for each section as I should have. Those little flags are stuck on pages all through the book, and there would be more if some had always been available when I needed them, and I am hoping now that when I flip back through that I will remember why I flagged each page, the passage that drew me, and what I planned to say about it.

When I was in grad school and faced with huge reading loads, my favorite professor gave me some advice that seemed counter-intuitive for someone faced with reading forty some-odd books (some of them 1000 pages or more…Clarissa, anyone?) in the space of fifteen weeks. He told me I should read every book once straight through, without marking passages or taking notes, and then go back and read the book a second time and with my impression of the work somewhat formed, take notes and mark passages. And it worked. My reading pace quickened, my thoughts were clearer, and my ideas were more sound because I could “test” my original impression through the second reading.

Now, for posting thoughts about books here, I’ve sort of abandoned this process, and I’m not sure whether it’s holding me in good stead. I first noticed it when I was writing my post for Wide Sargasso Sea. I read the book, and then sat down to write my post, flipping back through the book just to look for quotes, not really doing a second read. The problem was, I had an idea formed on the “page,” but as I flipped back through I kept noticing more interesting points about the language or plot to discuss–ideas I ignored because I felt like I just needed to get the post done. When I was reading The Manual of Detection, I copied quotes out of the book as I read, but this somewhat interrupted my reading and distracted me from the plot, so I stopped.

Now, with a book as long as Gone with the Wind, there’s a certain logic in posting about sections of the book, but then I find that every time I get an idea, something comes along in later passages to change it. That’s why I decided to just wait and post about my impressions as a whole, although it’s interesting to see thought processes change about characters and such through each post. Each method has its benefits. But truly I would prefer to read it again, and if this copy were mine, I would, and I would mark it up like crazy! Of course, I probably should temper myself, because these are just posts about my thoughts on books, not dissertations. And another thing: even if I may have put the book on my TBR list as the result of a review on one of your blogs, I try not to read  reviews before I start writing, unless I am really stuck and need a touch point, something to agree with or argue against.

So I am wondering, what’s your review process? Do you like to read straight through and then dump all your thoughts, or do you flag passages and take notes as you go? Do you read other reviews before you write your own? I think I know what works best for me, but I love to hear about other people’s processes, like my professor’s, because I might find something that opens up my reading in a way I didn’t expect.

Happy Sunday, everyone!

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19 comments

  1. I read straight through and then dump all my thoughts out, but I use those little flags to mark significant passages. Your reviews are more serious and academic so to say than mine by a long shot though. 😉

  2. I very infrequently take notes but only because I am too lazy to get out of bed (usually) and find paper and pen. The obvious answer would be to keep such things handy, but… instead I generally read and write an overall impression of the book. But I think my reviews are better when I take notes.

  3. I approach my reviews as formalized form of my thoughts and impressions of what I’ve read. What did I like or dislike? What made an impact, would I read more from that author or genre? Did I enjoy it? Perhaps on a re-read, I would be more analytical in parsing the text and discussing themes, but I really just write about whatever struck me, so that upon re-reading my entries, I can recall my feelings about the book (I actually have a terrible memory when it comes to plots and things like that). As such, I read my books full through, without taking notes or even flagging pages (sometimes I’ll fold down a corner if something is particularly striking that I think I’ll want to mention in my review. I think your prof’s suggestion about reading through once to get general impressions of ideas and themes is good – future readings of the text will certainly allow you to focus on different elements of the story- but I definitely don’t feel obligated to follow that type of reading for my entries. The books I want to read again, I will, and hopefully those future re-reads will result in me writing about different things regarding those novels!

  4. My reviews are pretty short and to the point. I try to do a bit of a summary and then list what worked and what didn’t for me. As I read along though I do try to take some notes for possible quotes or of passages that I find interesting. I do like what your professor suggested but as I don’t typically re-read books then that would be a problem wouldn’t it! 🙂

  5. I mark passages as I go and sometime take notes. Then I go back over the passages to clarify my thoughts. What struck me about that particular passage? Did I grin, cringe or did my eyes well up with tears? I try and quote passages that reflect the author’s style and the tone of the book.

    I think my first reviews were written too quickly, rushed and not always well thought out so now I take time to assimilate what I’ve read before I write about it.

  6. I skimmed back through some of your reviews and it’s similar to what I do. I have three sections: 1. How I discovered, 2. The Setup and 3. The review itself in which I include quotes like you do. I think that’s important to include quotes. The last part is I give my final review with an explanation of what my rating system means. 5- Classic, must-read; 4- Worth buying the book; 3- Worth getting the book from the library; 2- Worth skimming at the bookstore; and 1- Worth being a doorstop.

  7. Before I started blogging, my notebook (reading journal, if you will) consisted of mostly just favourite passages. I usually just memorize the pages where those are, so as not to disrupt my reading flow, and then get back to them after finishing the book.

    When I started blogging, I didn’t really write proper nor good reviews. I just wanted to stick my favourite passages in, and the rest of my thoughts were haphazardly written most of the time.

    I love reading reviews, and I admit I’m not a good critic, so I haven’t been comfortable in doing actual reviews, which is why I kept going back and forth as to what works best for me, where I’m more at ease.

    I think I’ve finally hit that point, where I’ve decided to just write as I go along, or not, just whenever I feel like it, in the middle of things. I don’t usually gather my thoughts, I jump right in, type in my fave passages, and then go from there, just whatever comes to mind, and I don’t have to worry if I’ve given the plot or if I’ve made the most important points, etc, just whatever resonated with me. 😀

    I sometimes used to read reviews before writing down my own thoughts, not always, but now I don’t, as I’m afraid to lose the personal impressions I’ve made if I did. I do read afterwards, though, as it’s interesting to see how similar or different my own thoughts might be from other readers’.

  8. Amy, I’ve been doing that myself. For some books it works well, and for others not so much. I keep wishing I had time to go back to them–I guess old habits die hard.

    Sarah, I’ve had that same problem! I usually read on the bed in my “office” (guest bedroom), and often my pen or flags are on the desk when I need them. And it’s not so much my laziness that keeps me from getting up, but the laziness of the cat in my lap!

    Steph, I definitely prefer to read straight through on the first read. And I agree, because of time and interest, there are only some books I want to re-read.

    Iliana, you pack a lot into those short reviews, though! I am not sure that re-reading is really necessary for this the way it is for academic papers. For me I just tend (out of habit) to feel like I should, but I think I need to get over that–or just go back to school and finish my PhD!

    Gavin, I like those quick impressions! At least you trust yourself and what you like enough to go with it. I always get something out of your reviews.

    Unfinished Person, I agree–quotes are important. I didn’t always include them, but I think readers get a better sense of voice if they can see passages. And I’ve been toying around with the idea of a rating system, because I don’t have one now. Hm…maybe a poll for next week!

    Claire, I like the approach you take of just diving in. When I kept a physical reading journal, I did more of that…but looking back through it, I noticed that I ask myself a lot of questions and note things to re-read, so that wouldn’t work for the blog (unless, maybe, for a read-along). And I agree-I don’t really believe I am a critic or reviewer in the formal sense, so I even hesitate to call what I do “review.” I like the journal approach, but my “formal training” gets in there as well, and sometimes in the way! And as for re-reading, I keep a list of books to re-read…there never seems to be time. I thought that if I am still blogging next year, I might like to set up a re-reading challenge–otherwise I’ll never get back to anything!

  9. I like to take notes as I go, but I’m with you: my thoughts change by the end. My blog thoughts are usually a collection of my overall impressions, because that is how I walk away from the book. My blog is to collect my lasting impressions of books. but somethings definitely deserve rereads and revisiting, so I intend to write thoughts on books I reread too. It’s interesting to see how time changes my impression of books.

  10. It’s so funny that I just learned what your professor’s advice about three weeks ago. Before then I would just read and flag as I went or speed through the first time and not re-read. Though sometimes I hate to, I do read once for pleasure and then re-read. I appreciate what I’m reading so much more.

  11. Hey Prissy,

    I’m assuming Bill Cobb was your favorite prof and I never heard him give that advice! Ha! I’m a Taurus and you’re a spotted owl. I’m hoping that you’re having a day. I’m having a night.

  12. Rebecca, the one advantage of taking notes as I go is that if I have questions, I can see by the end if they’ve been resolved and how, and if not, it gives me a good thread to follow. You are so right about time–and other books–changing our impressions.

    Vasilly, the method really does work. If only there were 48 hours in a day!

    Missy, you’re a badger. Have a glass of iced tea. It was Dr. Preston.

  13. A most thoughtful and contemplative post! I tend to be a close reader. I mark the pages where key passages are found so that the pace of reading is not substantially compromised. Then I go back and scribble down thoughts along with page references. I’ve got post-its all over the pages which will become the basis of my review, which I write into my Moleskin notebook.

  14. Matt, the Moleskine notebook! Of course. Your process sounds much like mine. I do tend to leave markers (breadcrumbs) but try not to stop or think about what I’m marking…Sometimes when I go back to the page where I left a marker, I can’t remember why I even wanted to mark the page, probably because whatever seemed significant at the time turned out not to be.

  15. While I’m reading, I’ll dogear the bottom corners of pages whose passages I find interesting. Eventually, my brain starts writing the review while I’m reading, and unless the book changes dramatically, by the end I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say about it. Then I just go back and grab the passages I need.

    But I don’t attempt to do super-fancy literary criticism; I never took an English class in college, so it’s just my thoughts. 🙂

  16. Eva, I too try to write thoughts only, so re-reading most of the time isn’t necessary, but it is kind of a luxury. With lit crit, the posts could get toooo loooooong. 🙂 And you’d have to establish too much from the outset. I’ll leave that to the literary journals.

  17. I sometimes take notes, but more often I’ll mark the page with whatever’s handy, then go back to these sections when writing my review. Like you, I often don’t remember what was significant about the spot I marked (indicating, perhaps, that in the end it *wasn’t* significant!)

    Some books have dozens of marker flags when I’m done, others have only a few. I always pull the flags when I shelve the book, so I’m don’t have preconceived notions about what was “important” or a “good quote” if/when I get to re-read it (or lend it to a friend)

  18. Dawn, I also always remove flags. So often when I re-read a book, I get something new out of it, so I don’t want my new impressions colored by the old ones.

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