In Praise of Nice Notebooks

Maks Sipowicz
Feb 1 · 4 min read

I obsess with other writers’ routines and tools of the trade. It’s probably just a form of procrastination, even if I justify it as trying to find out how my favourite writers work. I’m equally obsessed with the routines of famous people — even though I’ve not once changed the way I arrange my life in response to reading these accounts. My obsession tends to focus particularly on the kind of stationery they prefer.

Warren Ellis, for instance, uses Field Notes notebooks. Or at least he did last time I remember him mentioning it in his newsletter (link). If we are to trust their marketing material, Picasso, Chatwin and Hemingway supposedly used Moleskines (though, frankly, I doubt they were that picky). J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote a lot of notes towards the first Harry Potter book on serviettes at cafes.

My obsession makes me think that if only I can have the right kind of notebook, my thoughts will take a form that’s so perfect, so exact and so clear that the writing will come naturally. Usually it doesn’t, naturally.

We live in the golden age of stationery, which is a bit odd to say, since we’re also living in the age of the smartphone and tablet. We don’t really need to write things down on paper. As I write this an iPad and an iPhone lay next to my laptop. Either would do a fine job of writing this post. Yet, I’ve just spent a bundle on another notebook (actually, it was a set of Moleskine cahiers). This is despite a growing stack of unused, pristine, and crisp notebooks waiting their turn. Marie Kondo would be mortified.

Just a small portion of my collection

Until last weekend I was using a Midori traveller’s notebook. It had three inserts — one for my PhD, one for my projects — whatever they may be, and one for random notes. And I loved having it. The Midori notebooks feel great, the paper on the inserts is wonderful, and they’re a bit unusual so sometimes people would ask me about mine. It felt like a talking point, if the conversation was flagging. Yet, I had those three inserts in the cover for about a year without writing much in any of them. Overall, I used up maybe ¾ of the pages. I was unhappy with it. And while it’s probably false that the right notebook makes writing easier, it’s definitely true that the wrong one makes it harder.

For all of its craftsmanship and beauty, the Midori is oddly shaped — the pages are quite narrow, so my writing ended up feeling squished. Over time, my notes became less frequent, less usable and less useful. In the end, I noticed I was using a pad of scrap paper in the office to take notes and to think on. That had its own problems — I’d thrown out important notes more times than I care to mention. But it felt liberating. My need for a change became obvious.

The Midori before we said goodbye

I think a proper notebook is crucial to thinking. More so than a nice pen — which helps, but then, you can write with a bad pen, you can’t write without paper. Some people would say that the reason a nice notebook helps is that we somehow only want to commit our best ideas and thoughts to expensive paper — it would be a waste otherwise. That might be the case for some, but not for me.

The size, texture, absorption, feel, and even smell of the paper have an effect beyond merely not wanting to waste the paper. It has to feel right.

According to the extended cognition theory of the mind, our cognitive processes go beyond our brains. Our environments, the things we operate with in the world all influence and partake in our cognitive functions. It follows from this that the paper we write on is crucial to the kinds of things we write on it. If we find the right kind, the kind that resonates in some way with the deepest recesses of our minds, it isn’t merely a tool. It becomes a part of us. It needs to feel right when we’re unburdening our mind of the thoughts we want to keep but not remember, or when we need to work out a serious problem, or if we’re trying to find the best way to express a thought.

There are many things we use as extensions of ourselves. Our smartphones, for example. Many of us wouldn’t remember even our closest loved one’s phone number. The phone remembers for us — it extends our mind in that way. There is a reason why we’re so happy for our mobiles to do this. They’re exquisitely well suited to the task. This suggests to me that we instinctively pick the things that suit our needs particularly well. We could, of course, keep our phone numbers in a little phone book that we’d have to carry all the time. Some people do.

The same goes for paper. There are many alternatives, many varieties, and many form factors to choose from. We simply pick what works for us and when we find it, it works so well it can take over huge chunks of what we’d otherwise need to flex our brains to do.

For now, it seems that my new Moleskine cahier works exceedingly well. It feels like my mind has become unstuck. I’m having an easier time writing, and my ideas seem better. For now, at least.

Note: Story includes some affiliate links to Amazon.

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