Inspiration from your jacket pocket
by Thomas Wagner | May 1, 2001
More than paper and glue: the notebook is a powerhouse for the jacket pocket. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Albert Camus is said to have exclaimed that calling things by the wrong name contributed to evil in the world. Typical author, you might say. And yet everyone knows while trampling away on the treadmill of the so-called knowledge society, where you have to be creative non-stop, how important (and delightful) it can be to not condemn fleeting observations, thoughts, conversations simply to the realm of the forgotten. There are indeed all sorts of different ways of noting things down, be they things professional or private, your last conversation with a friend, a quick info-swap with an architect X or designer Y on this or that detail, jotting down how overwhelming or disappointing the last exhibition by artist K was, why the structure of Project Z is not yet quite right, not to forget all things on the agenda for the next few days.

Architects, artists, writers and journalists seem to prefer an analog medium in this regard. A notebook. A small one, lower case, often sized A6, ready at hand in a jacket pocket, in which you can then jot down or draw whatever seems worth recording – a marvelous habit that allows you to get a clear view on this or that. Be it a small exercise book or a thick notebook, the proven counterpart to the Smartphone or Tablet PC doesn’t need a battery, recharging, or an uplink to the Cloud. You have everything with you, all the thoughts you are playing around with, your ToDo lists, and all the other stuff you write down; you can leaf through it this way or that, and find things you weren’t looking for. And when leafing through old notes not rarely you come across good ideas that got forgotten and are possibly worth revisiting. With your notes before you, new ideas start bubbling up or bubble back up.

A notebook is simply practical and there’s nothing better. Essentially it is not a thing made of paper and glue but a powerhouse that drives our thinking machines, documenting and bundling the output. Hard to imagine there can be a better companion for our self-reflections, a form that always functions, a friend open for any words and who can keep a secret. Even if things don’t go swimmingly and the blues has set in. Write your diary on a Notebook or even an iPad? Confide in the Touchscreen and Facebook that your boss is annoying you, your friend has nicked your girlfriend, and that everything seems to be going to the dogs – no, that somehow doesn’t fit. Moreover, Google and the NSA aren’t in on your private life if in a melancholy moment you just give injustice free reign and wonder how the world, above all your own, can continue. Whatever your soul spits on the page, the notebook accepts sympathetically.

That said, notebooks had as good as disappeared. Some 20 or 30 years ago, all you could buy were some fuddy-duddy versions from the days when offices had scribes and orders and bookkeeping involved just that – books. It is surprising that notebooks are back in fashion, parallel to digitalization. With the result that today there is a whole array of them, and even the plainest ones to which we commit our thoughts come complete with a special philosophy of creativity.

At Moleskine for example, the little black pocket-sized brand which sparked the Renaissance of the notebook as a fashion accessory, the self-confident claim is that “the Moleskine” is nothing less than “synonymous with culture, travel, memory, imagination and personal identity”, a companion that is a typical “symbol of contemporary nomadism”. Anyone believing this can regard the little notebook as a companion and crutch. And because the marketing buffs for this outfitter of us urban nomads leaves nothing to chance, there are now not only notebooks, but diaries, sketchbooks, calendars, bags and writing utensils – in all possible sizes and colors, in leather, cloth-bound, plastic or card; printed, embossed, branded, or simply “black”; the pages blank, squared, ruled, with a bookmark or pen pocket. Boasting something for every taste, the little books are made by an anonymous bookbinder, a small paper company, or by Moleskine, Brunnen or Leuchtturm 1917, by Manufactum or Semikolon, by Ciak or Authentics. Not to mention entire systems such as Serrote or X17, which are more than a classic notebook, and quite different.

Anyone who is still not persuaded that a notebook is more than a bound stack of paper – can read up at Moleskine on the nice story of a legendary notebook used by artists and intellectuals last century, whose heritage the company is now nurturing. Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin, all confided their fantasies and distress to a “simple black rectangle with rounded corners”, a perfect but anonymous object that for more than a century had been by a small French bookbinder that supplied the stationery shops of Paris, ones that we, the tourists of our history of creativity, but the actual heroes of the avant-garde frequented. A sketch that then morphed into a world-famous painting hanging in the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum, a jotting that spawned world-class literature, all of that ostensibly began on the pages of this small everyday companion. At any rate, in this way the misty picture of permanent creativity is hung up before our inner eye like a carrot dangled in front of a hungry donkey, all bones and mule skin, who thinks he’ll be able to gobble it up. The message is clear: Thou shalt not tolerate another notebook but I.

Because nothing stays the way it was, and inspiration craves images and data, in the age of Smartphone and iPad the makers of analog recording media also seek to hook up to the digital world. For example, Moleskine’s “Evernote Business notebook” is meant to help you grasp the notes, meetings and dates you otherwise have scattered across numerous different appliances. To guarantee this, for this hybrid a page layout was developed specially for use with an “Evernote Page Camera” that allows you to store handwritten notes in digital form – and comes complete with a temporary subscription to “Evernote Premium”. Evidently, today all roads still lead to Rome, albeit via networking.

Nothing could be more fun that going to the bookcase and taking out an old notebook, browsing through it, rather than addressing the labyrinths of your own imagination using a search engine. “I indeed have no truck with people who use the word ‘effective’,” quipped crotchety Karl Kraus. And if one thing is for sure, then that the mind wanders where it wants. And you’ll often find it left traces in a notebook, that’s the one without the upper case N.

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Notebook basics, beginning on the left upper side in circulation: Leuchtturm 1971, "die lücke lassen.unfilled gab" von rendel&spitz, Magis, Audi Urban Future Award, Manzara Instanbul and Authentics. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Noted and unforgotten: The notebook-collection of our author Thomas Wagner. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark