I sidestepped the evaluation notebook issue in The Gel Dilemma, but this omission has bugged me because I’ve cared about what I’ve written on for a lot longer than I’ve cared what I’ve written with.
The Mom is to blame here. When I was 10 she gave me a journal entitled “Moments Worth Remembering”. There was a rainbow on front. I asked the Mom:
“It’s a journal.”
“Writing down what you think.”
The idea had never occurred to me… writing for myself rather than for Ms. Ockerman, the 3rd grade teacher.
Every five years, I go back and reread portions of that journal, looking for the same transition. I start the journal and it’s clear that I’m still writing for school; assuming that someone is going to read and grade my journal. Then, halfway through those pages of horrible cursive, I stopped expecting to be graded and started writing for myself. It was a treatise on the coolness of the Rubik’s Cube and it was just for me.
Since the Rubik’s epiphany, I’ve been writing constantly in journals. During college, I spent two years drunkenly plunking down my thoughts on the computer, but I gradually moved back to the handwritten word since, well, notebook computers weren’t there yet and I wanted to write wherever I damn well pleased.
The primary goal of a notebook is to get out of the way… to disappear. It does this by perfectly fitting into your writing situation. How accessible does it need to be? What notebook tangibles do you need? How will it withstand a beating? By fitting into how you write, a notebook becomes invisible. It wastes none of your time because any moment you spend noticing the notebook is a moment you could be noticing something else, and writing about it.
But that’s not what makes a notebook truly sexy.
I have years of experience with some notebooks, weeks with others. As you can see, I’ve explored a wide variety of notebooks. The photo above is ordered chronologically, with my oldest journal on the bottom and my newest discovery, the Field Notes brand, the notebook in which I’m writing the first draft of this article, on the top. Like The Gel Dilemma, I’ve evaluated notebooks according to specific buckets of criteria.
My collection represents a wide variety of the notebooks out there, but they are merely the ones I’ve stumbled upon or had recommended. It is by no means a complete or representative collection. But know this: when I see a store with notebooks for sale, I always stop. I examine. I flip the pages and figure out if there is anything new. I do this regardless of current company, country, or convenience. I am a social introvert, but will stop a complete stranger on the street if they’re sporting an unknown notebook.
The Purpose section represents the hard facts regarding this selection of notebooks. As a means of simplification, I’m going to use the word notebook to describe the bevy of different writing receptacles I’m going to evaluate. I could have just as easily used the word notepad, journal, workbook, or sketchbook.
As you can see above from the variety of notebooks I’ve used, there are widely differing intended uses. Anything pocket-sized works better than anything else when you’re sitting on a 16-hour flight to New Zealand. Given that intended use significantly affects value, there is no clear winner regarding Purpose, but there is judgment.
|Cachet Sketchbook||10.5 x 13.5||Stitched||Hard||Heavy (70#)||~150|
|Watson-Guptill Sketchbook||8.5 x 11||Stitched||Hard||Heavy (70#)||~200|
|Moleskin Cahier Notebook||7.5 x 9.75||Stitched||Soft||Medium (20#)||60|
|Moleskine Reporter Notebook||8 x 5||Stitched||Hard||Medium (20#)||192|
|Paperchase Notebook||5.75 x 4||Glue||Pleather||Thin (20#)||~250|
|Moleskine Japanese Notebook||3.75 x 5.5||Stitched||Hard||Medium (20#)||60|
|Moleskine Notebook||3.75 x 5.5||Stitched||Hard||Medium (20#)||60|
|Field Notes Notebook||3.5 x 5.5||Saddle-Stitch||Soft||Heavy-Medium (50#)||48|
|Moleskine Cahier Notebook||3.5 x 5.5||Stitched||Soft||Medium (20#)||64|
Intangibles and Accessories
Getting into the more esoteric aspects of individual notebooks. These features tend to be where folks start to foam at the mouth with regards to their favorite notebook.
|Cachet Sketchbook||None||No||Shiny Black / White||Art store||No||No|
|Watson-Guptill Sketchbook||None||No||Matte Black / White||Art store||No||No|
|Moleskin Cahier Notebook||None||Partial||Brown / Off-White||Everywhere||Yes||No|
|Moleskine Reporter Notebook||None||No||Shiny Black / White||Everywhere||Yes||Yes|
|Paperchase Notebook||Grid||No||Shiny Black / White||Borders||No||No|
|Moleskine Japanese Notebook||None||No||Shiny Black / White||Everywhere||Yes||Yes|
|Moleskine Notebook||None||No||Shiny Black / White||Everywhere||Yes||Yes|
|Field Notes Notebook||Grid||No||Brown / White||Mail Order||No||No|
|Moleskine Cahier Notebook||None||Partial||Brown / Off-White||Everywhere||Yes||No|
This section was originally titled “durability” because any notebook evaluation must analyze how a notebook is going to survive. We need to understand how a notebook can take a beating because what’s sexy about a notebook is how it survives.
Scars are stories. What I want out of my notebook is that it looks better after three months of beatings. A great notebook decays gracefully. A great notebook weathers its use and becomes more than what it began as. As a notebook is beaten up, its character improves. Therefore, the ratings in this table are different. They explain how, after heavy usage, the various aspects of the notebook survived.
There is additional measure on this table, Character. Character is a purely personal opinion of how the entire notebook looked after three months. As I’m not going to anoint an overall winner, consider Character to be the best gauge of my overall opinion of Purpose, Intangibles, and Decay.
|Moleskin Cahier Notebook||Excellent||Good||Good||Wanna-be|
|Moleskine Reporter Notebook||Excellent||Excellent||Good||Hip|
|Moleskine Japanese Notebook||Excellent||Excellent||Good||Hip|
|Field Notes Notebook||Good||Excellent||Excellent||Hip|
|Moleskine Cahier Notebook||Excellent||Excellent||Excellent||Hip|
The Whole Story
There’s no obvious winner here because there are far too many uses for a good notebook. For me, notebooks are the home for the primal drafts of my articles. Right now, I’m finishing a draft of this piece on a flight to New York. There are two notebooks sitting in my lap that I’m using for source material because both are my New York notebooks.
How do you want to remember something you’ve done or thought? Your memory, while vast, is apt to alter itself according to your mood, your opinion, the time of day. And it fades and loses things over time. This is why we take pictures. Memory, while often comprehensive in terms of storage, is lousy at reconstruction.
Any context you can capture aids in reconstruction, which is why I write it all down. But better yet, my notebook, through its design, captures context as well. This is why New York looks like this:
There’s a story within a story here. It’s not just what I wrote down, it’s how what I wrote in captured what I didn’t consciously see.
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