Read Well, and with a Notebook

By Wendy Murray

I write in notebooks meaningful passages from books I read. I have volumes of these notebooks that include passages from the works of large-souled thinkers and dreamers, including George MacDonald, Thomas Merton, Albert Camus, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Isak Dinesen, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Francis de Sales, Henri Nouwen, James Merrill, G. K. Chesterton, St. Augustine, Anthony Trollope, William Maxwell, Willa Cather, E. M. Forester, Graham Green, J.M. Barrie, Knut Hamsun, and, more recently, Ellery Sedgwick.

When I am overthrown by circumstances, I return to these notebooks. I consider the person I was in my reading.  My soul was ripe!  I had to write things down. Either by sentiment or sheer sentence construction, words carried a force that made me want to step inside them. I wanted to assume the hopefulness they aroused or the skill they displayed.  The words themselves were creating me both as a person and as a writer.

Keeping a notebook as you read is a helpful exercise. It enables you to be twice blessed, first in the reading and then in the writing down. The process sanctifies your soul and imparts new possibility.

A book well-read, slowly chronicled, becomes a life-line and a tether. It feeds you, then holds and settles you when you are otherwise tossed. The notebook reminds you of that awakening, the engagement with another’s words and the thought that so filled your senses that you had to stop, grab a pen, find a clean page, and write.

Here are a few glimpses into my notebooks:

from John Donne: “. . . My God, thou wast not want to come in whirlwinds, but in soft and gentle air” (Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions);

from J. M. Barrie: “. . . She went from bed to bed singing enchantments over them, and little Michael flung his arms `round her. ‘Mother,’ he cried, ‘I’m glad of you'” (Peter Pan);

from Graham Greene: “it’s astonishing the sense of innocence that goes with sin” (The Power and the Glory);

from Anthony Trollope: “The bishop, who was seated, fretted himself in his chair, moving about with little movements. He knew that there was a misery coming upon him; and, as far as he could see, it might become a great misery — a huge blistering sore upon him” (The Last Chronicle of Barset);

from Frederick Buechner: “Above all, never question the truth beyond all understanding and surpassing all other wonders that in the long run nothing, not even the world, not even ourselves, can separate us forever from that last and deepest love that glimmers in our dusk like a pearl, like a face” (Sacred Journey);

Annie Dillard: “So shadows define the real. If I no longer see shadows as ‘dark marks,’ as do the newly-sighted, then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light. They give the light distance; they put it in its place. They inform my eyes of my location” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.