In search of the perfect notebook

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Posted on March 24, 2013 by

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indianajones

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dr Jones’s diary.

When I worked for Scotland Yard in the 1980s I had a Filofax, which was pretty standard for people living in London at the time. I took it with me to Japan and used it for all my notes and planning until it fell to bits, at which point I bought another. I still have it now, faded and battered, though I mainly use it for my notes on the memory systems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

When the first Palm Pilots turned up in the 1990s I became an instant convert and I went through several as new models came out, scribbling or tapping my notes onto the screen to such an extent that my actual handwriting started to look like the odd font used for character recognition by the first models.

Genuine medieval Filofax from Bled Castle in Slovenia. It has pages for 'To Doeths' and a schedule showing when 'Sumer is icumin in'.

Genuine medieval Filofax. It has pages for ‘To Doeths’ and a schedule showing when ‘Sumer is icumin in’.

Of course now we have iPads and smart phones with thousands of apps for recording data and taking notes. Yet like many people I’ve grown tired of using technology to record ideas and have turned back to pen and paper. There’s a number of reasons for this that other people have also talked about. Pen and paper don’t need batteries, you can drop a notebook on concrete and so on and so forth. Most of the notes and ideas that went into my Palm Pilot disappeared as the technology became obsolete and duplicating or backing up from one system to another became too much of a pain. Yet I can reach up and open the Filofax I bought twenty five years ago and my ideas are still in there. There’s also something liberating about working with a piece of paper and a pen that you don’t get with a computer. Even the biggest screen is filled with systems that seem to constrain thought, pushing it down narrow paths built by someone else.

davincinotebook

One of Da Vinci’s journals with his famous mirror writing.

So a few years ago I switched back to paper and pen for note-taking and started hunting for the perfect notebook. What I wanted was something that I could fill with ideas and pictures and would end up looking like Professor Jones’s diary from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, or the kind of journal usually found next to a pair of smoking shoes in a quiet corner of the Miskatonic Library, filled with Knowledge Man was Not Meant To Know, and cool pictures. It’s actually proved harder than I thought, there are loads of notebooks out there, but none of them quite right. Here’s my own assessment of a few different brands:

Filofax

I thought of going back to this but the small ones are too small, and the A5 one weighs the same as a family bible and is therefore impractical to carry around. Interestingly, after the company struggled against the rise of the PDA in the 1990s, the Filofax is now enjoying a renaissance, especially among women. You can now get loads of ‘female friendly’ versions decorated Laura Ashley themes by those who think the cleverer sex really are into floral borders with pink undertones.

Moleskine

moleskine3

Moleskine set itself up as the first of the ‘quality’ notebooks, claiming that famous artists and writers like Hemingway used them (along with Professor Henry Jones). It’s all a bit of dubious marketing fluff, but they are nice notebooks, with a band to hold them closed and a paper pocket for receipts and tickets at the end. Sadly the quality is poor. The fake leather composite covers split at the seams and the paper is thin, which means ink pen bleeds through. Most of mine started to fall apart halfway through use, and I’m not that rough with them.

Ciak

CIAK-Notebooks-red-yellow-bHigh-end notebooks mainly come from Italy, and the Ciak notebooks are beautifully made with thick leather covers and decent, cream paper. They’re almost perfect, and I love the bright colours, but they have rounded spines and don’t open flat. For me this makes them a real pain to use because either the right hand or left hand page (depending on where you are) bangs against your hand when you’re writing and has to be weighted or elbowed flat.

Cartesio

CARTESIO-notebooks

I really like Cartesio notebooks. They are very similar to Moleskine but better quality and more durable. However the paper thickness varies for some reason. The diaries are great, and I use a Cartesio for my daily journal, but the paper in the ordinary notebooks bleeds like anything when you use a fountain pen (I hate rollerballs and biros). This makes your thoughts look like a deranged Rorschach test, which is a pity because they are lovely jotters compared to Moleskine. If you don’t use an ink pen these are fine.

Midori

midori-traveler-notebook-b-06

I think I might have finally cracked it with the Midori Traveller’s Notebook, a piece of Zen minimalism from Japan. Opening the box for the first time can be a bit underwhelming as you get a leather wrap-around cover (thick cow hide from north Thailand) with a notebook inside held in place by a coloured elastic band. The beauty lies in its customisability. You can easily add extra notebooks and inserts like plastic wallets and card holders, along with different types of paper, either bought or cut up by yourself. The Midori has a growing international fan club swapping ideas on how to personalise the journal, and displaying photos of their own notebooks. The grand master of notebook beauty is Patrick Ng, whose blog Scription, is full of fantastic suggestions on how to use the journal.

So I’ll let you know how I get on with the Midori Traveller’s Notebook and how well it accommodates Forbidden Knowledge and Ancient Lore. As an aside I’ve also been hunting for a decent fountain pen and after wasting time and money on swanky pens that either leaked or didn’t write at all, have settled for a £15 Lamy pen from Germany, which works perfectly.

All the journals mentioned above (apart from Filofax) can be bought in the UK from The Journal Shop, who provide great service and often run 3 for 2 deals.

Response to In search of the perfect notebook

  1. Jane Dougherty

    When we lived in Paris, my husband developed a thing about carnets moleskines (before reading thingy either, the arctic tern man forget his name) and we bought up the entire stock of the only papeterie we could find that still had an ancient stock of them. They were the original, pre fad moleskin notebooks. They were good quality and have withstood the test of time pretty well.
    Personally, I carry old envelopes and a pencil around with me should inspiration strike.
    Bruce Chatwin’s your man! He’s probably responsible for the decline in quality too. Nothing destroys quality like success.

    • John Guy Collick Post author

      It’s a shame Moleskine have gone downhill, I noticed how the quality deteriorated in the five years or so that I used them, especially the covers. I’d be interested to see what the old versions looked like.

  2. Connie J Jasperson

    I use the traditional notebook of the american schoolchild–a Spiral Notebook. They come in several different sizes. They are beyond cheap, fairly sturdy and look totally unprofessional! But the paper has lines and my chicken-scratches are easier for me to decipher when I go to put my notes into manuscript form!

    I was given a lovely leather-bound journal for mother’s day and have been afraid to sully it with my scratchings!

  3. Jasper

    I’ve found that I need a variety of notebooks. I have a Midori TN but I sometimes get funny looks when I’m on a construction site for meetings with Mr Fat Fingers.

    I use the large Moleskines for everyday work use. I’ve also found that Muji have a nice selection of stationery these days. Their ultra fine 0.38 pens are great for drawing and some of the journals have innovative content design with good quality paper.

    I do struggle to work out what I should use out of a universe of stationery and electronic devices but every day kit is an A5 notebook/pen, phone and an iPad mini – those 3 things are all I really need if I’m out and about.

    Interesting post, as you can tell I’m into stationery too and it seems to be making a comeback.

  4. Cathy

    This is a fascinating blog John. I used to have a filofax but with me it was originally a pose (pretentious, moi? as Miss Piggy would say). It did turn out to be useful eventually though, until it self-destructed with age (and I got an early electronic organiser).

  5. Dave Higgins

    After years of remembering to transfer my notebook from pocket to pocket I managed to launder it in a pair of trousers then bake the paper mache into a single piece on the radiator, so this is a timely analysis.

    I have been using a Lamy without issue for several years, although I find the pseudo-cartridge for converting it to use bottled ink can be messy if you are not careful.

  6. John Guy Collick Post author

    I’ve been looking at the Lamy converter so this is a helpful warning. I had a Pelikan before which cost three times the price and leaked like anything. Half an hour and I had hands like Molesworth.

  7. Amy

    Such a great write up of notebooks– I must say I am new to the MIdori line; I must check it out.

    I feel like the quality of Moleskines has deteriorated over time. Ten years ago I had one and it took no small amount of punishment and handled it beautifully. My current ones, much less so, but I am still an addict– something about the tactile feel of the paper.

    • John Guy Collick Post author

      I know what you mean – Moleskine could be so good if they just improved the quality of the binding and the paper. Sadly they seem to be going down the maximise profits through cheap production route.

  8. Patrick Ng

    hahahah, flattering!
    Thanks John. Been too busy with finding the next great stuffs I can’t even comment/update my own blog, hope the culture lives on. Now in Beijing with hectic schedule. Keep up your good work!

  9. Cynthia Niklas

    Thanks John for good information on notebooks,

    Those all product’s papers are acid free and you can find out different verity in products such as leather covers and Ciak notebook is really good for authors to keep their writing skill safe and beautiful.

  10. L

    Thanks for the notebook write-up. I just bought a new Moleskine soft-bound cahier journal, and I’m very disappointed with the paper quality. Even comparing it to an early 2012 one, there is a clear decline in quality of the paper!

    In testing new notebooks, has anyone come across one that is wider than the usual journal size? I love the 7.5”x10” size, but want to find one of better paper quality!

  11. Ron

    Thanks for the rundown on the notebooks! You’ve definitely helped to confirm my suspicion of the Moleskines. If I may add an excellent brand to your list, the Field Notes brand has excellent quality, and is made in America. They are simple notebooks (and only come in pocket and steno sizes) but I’ve been very impressed with them. The paper – which is crucial to the writing experience – has been widely praised by pencil holdouts and fountain pen connoisseurs alike. Oh, and they’re affordable, too.

  12. Kate B

    Thank you for the run down on notebooks. I’ve been using Moleskines for some years now. I’ve not really noticed the reduction in quality, except for trying to use watercolor in the sketchbook….that is less possible now with my newest purchase.

    re: electronic options. I, too, adopted a Palm Pilot when they were first available. Perhaps because I synchronized it with Outlook rather than Palm Desktop, I have been able to keep every scrap of nearly 20 years of information through many devices and now to my iPod Touch 4g.

    However, I do still like the feel of fountain pen on paper. I prefer a hardbound notebook for the support. It also must open flat. So I’m still writing in the large Moleskine notebook.

    I’ve thought about Midori but it seems a lot to pay for a folder of leather. I say to myself, I could MAKE that (as I do some of my own leather crafting). I also doubt the leather by itself offers the same support as a hardback book.

    I use a Lamy, a Platinum Cool and a Platinum Plaisir, all with converters. http://www.gouletpens.com/ has excellent tutorials as well as a good source for pens and papers.

    • John Guy Collick Post author

      OK – here’s my update. The jury’s still out on the Midori Traveller. At first I got all excited because it looked like I’d found a simple convenient high quality notebook system that ticked the right boxes – stayed flat, nice size, fountain pen paper etc etc. After using it for six months certain niggles have started to get in the way. To begin because of the physical construction I often find myself having to shuffle the contents back into place. The elastic band holding the notebooks is not that strong so the edges of the paper stick out and get scuffed etc. I have the plastic wallet insert and I keep having to realign it so that its centered against the cover. The same thing happens with the paper. This may seem incredibly trivial but I need a notebook I can plop open and use immediately without having to realign stuff. I’ll experiment a little more with how I’ve built mine and see how it goes. I know exactly what I’m after – basically a Cartesio style notebook with better paper (the current ones won’t take fountain pen) – something that lies flat, has a band to keep it shut and a pocket at the back. All the notebooks have 3 out of 4 of the requirements, but none have it all!

      • Nicola

        Quo Vadis Habana? They’re pretty expensive, though. But they come with a fairly hard cover, fountain-pen friendly paper, an elastic closure, and a pocket at the back. I’m also pretty sure they lie flat, too.

        One of the things you might run into with notebooks/journals full of fountain-pen friendly paper is a long dry time. Especially with Clairfontaine paper.

  13. Howard Stein

    I am seriously after the Leuchtturm Black Hard Cover Master Slim Notebook, Plain Pages.
    I’ve spent two days, like an addict researching notebooks and journals.
    Currently using a 5″X7″ Pinetti by teNeues which I bought from JenniBick.com some years ago. I can’t find them online any longer. Pinetti journals are outstanding but very hard to find in the USA. The Leuchtturm is the gold standard now for Moleskine-type books.

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