Dog-Earred Pages: How a Novelist Reads a Book

07/13/2010 07:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The beginning stage of research for a novel is unlike any other kind of research because you're not in search of facts or proof or even information: you're in search of mood, little tidbits of truth, things that you can use to figure out who your characters are and what's important to them.

I just finished reading the book, "This is Your Brain on Music," by Daniel J. Levitin. I stumbled upon this book because one of my students cited it as one of his favorites, and I liked the title. Levitan, a rocker-turned-neuroscientist, delves into big questions about music and human nature -- how music evokes emotion, why some people can play it and others can't, what it has to do with language. It was a fascinating read (which made me feel, among other things, highly uneducated.) What made it an inspiring read, was that, early on, I realized that my music critic character would almost certainly have read this book. It was a New York Times bestseller, and the blurbs inside are from a wide range of luminaries in the world of music. My guy could have been one of those luminaries, but he certainly would have lunched or played golf or tennis with them, and they would have talked about it.

And so, as I read, I thought of this character. I looked for things that would have pleased him or made him mad. This helps me understand his opinions, his prejudices. Does he like Sting, or not? Is he a Wagner fan, or not? I looked for the way things were described -- the language people who understand music use. And I looked, especially, for emotion -- for places where Levitan's love of music was evident, so I could see how that was evoked on the page.

I don't like to mark in books -- a holdover from the days when I was taught not to -- and so when I read, I turn down the corners of pages where there's something I want to refer back to. In "This is Your Brain on Music," there are approximately 25 corners turned down. What I will do now is go back to each of those pages and try to see what caught my eye. Sometimes I know exactly what it is, and I copy it into a computer file -- the quote or reference to something else I want to research (an historical figure, a term, another book.) Sometimes I read the page and have no idea what I had been thinking, and so I just move on to the next dog-earred page.