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|
- Binding is one of those attributes you’ll never notice until it fails. In my experience, sewn binding never fails. I’ve had both glue-based and stapled bindings blow out on me, usually as a result of purchasing an overall poor quality notebook. A blown-out binding means a dead notebook, and that means everything inside of that notebook will be forgotten.
- The Japanese Moleskine has zigzag folded pages with heavier paper. This was novel for about a week and then was totally annoying because I kept forgetting where in the zigging and zagging I was currently writing.
- I love ginormous notebooks with sketch paper. We’re talking MacBook 17″ ginormous here. In all-day off-sites with strict no laptop policies, the massive notebook is a security blanket. This is not an everyday notebook, but grab the biggest damned notebook you can find the next time you’re in an art store. It’s a great conversation piece, while also being a handy place to mentally wander when a meeting goes boring.
- Paper weight, the thickness of the paper, is the Achilles heel of many of the Moleskines. While I appreciate the off-white’n'yellow coloring of the paper, the paper itself is thin. I’m guessing 20 pound-ish. This bugs me less than the fact that I can see through the paper to the next page if I’ve already written on it. This is a noisy visual distraction that detracts from Moleskine’s general high quality.
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|
- I’m fervently anti-line on the page, but for the sake of science, I’ve tried a couple of lined notebooks. The result: yeah, you eventually stop seeing the lines, but read that again, you stop seeing what? I don’t need lines on a notebook. I needed lines in 3rd grade when I was learning how to write. I’m good now, thanks.
- Several Moleskine versions offer detachable paper for a portion of the notebook and this apparently floats some boats, but I never rip pages out of a notebook. I keep the notebooks which survive forever, which means a notebook with ripped-out pages is a violated notebook.
- Notebooks are always black. Sorry brown.
- Inner pockets are like mail rules. By using them, I forget whatever I put into them.
- The elastic band differentiates many of the Moleskines, but it also encourages a curiously annoying habit — you save stuff. The band gives the comforting illusion that your notebook is an enclosure, so you start shoving receipts, postcards, and business cards into the notebook. If packratting information is your schtick, the band helps, but I find once I start packratting, my notebook becomes less a writing tool and more like luggage. This is a mixed blessing as we’ll see in moment.
- There are huge families of notebooks that I haven’t included in my evaluation and the reason is they have too many moving parts. Ring bindings, refillable, tabbed, multicolored, combinable, and linkable notebooks — there’s something for everyone. All I see in many of these features is an opportunity for my notebook to explode.
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|
- There is only one disaster among the nine books, and that’s the Paperchase notebook. No surprise here, it was a Borders impulse buy. It has a thin pleather cover, grid lines, and I was a third of the way through it before the pages just started falling out.
- Moleskine is over-represented in my sample, but that’s because they survived. I’m certain my sample of notebooks would be larger, except that I discarded many notebooks when they decayed quickly and poorly.
- Yeah, there’s an entire article to be written about how the ink lands on the paper.
- The Moleskine catalog is obnoxiously large, but in their quest to be anything to anyone, they’ve found some sweet spots. In particular, I think the small Cahier notebook is a tough combination of cover, binding, and stitching. Yeah, it’s brown, but convenient size and durability makes it my go-to traveling notebook.
- While the decay of the elastic band isn’t listed here, it’s worth calling out that represents a decay paradox. First off, who doesn’t want to be the dude from The English Patient where he’s capturing everything he’s seeing, feeling, and touching in his notebook? I do. The band helps here except when it blows out and becomes a limp black string hanging from my thoughts.
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.