Monday, 24 January 2011

What makes a good notebook?

I’ve been thinking about “What makes a good notebook?” partly because, after years of teasing me about what he refers to as my 'book fetish', DH asked me if I had a spare notebook he could use. He wanted something really small so he could carry it around with him and it not weigh much. Of course, the Notebook Emporium (a large box of notebooks I possess) yielded the perfect notebook for him, but it left me wondering why so many of my notebooks were lingering unused in the Emporium.

I came down to three main qualities: functionality, size and feel.
Functionality and size are pretty linked. What is the notebook for? For jotting things down on the run, a large A4 Moleskine would not be the one you would choose, whereas for long, involved notes and plans, perhaps an A4 Moleskine would be perfect. To me, the sizes fall into three: pocket, handbag and desk, linked to their functions. To others, I guess pocket and handbag are one category, but I think a true pocket sized book is pretty small.
Other aspects of functionality would include – does the book lie flat (and does it matter if it doesn’t?). If it sits on a desk, be that at home, work or on a train/in a cafe etc, yes, it absolutely has to lie flat! If it’s for scribbling in on the run, not so vital. My filofax has to lie flat (but thankfully I haven’t had to resort to rocks to ‘train’ it yet, unlike Yvotchka and her pocket Finsbury!)
Then there’s does it have a page marker? Many nice notebooks do, but not all. Quite often I need to marks several pages, so in many ways it doesn’t matter as I have generally resorted to post-it notes anyway. For a diary/journal – yeah – you need a page marker.
Does it have a closure? And what’s the functionality of it? What do I mean – what’s the functionality of it? It keeps the book closed of course! Ah, but does it also hold a pen against the closed pages like the Ciak books do? If it’s horizontal, it can. But then you can’t open one cover out and slot it into the pocket of your filofax. If it’s vertical, it doesn’t hold loose papers tight against the cover securely. Do the closures get in the way of you writing? If the book is large, do they seem a little slack after a bit?
Loose leaf versus bound. This can be the killer. A loose-leaf book is useful for re-filing notes. Bound books are nice for posterity and keeping things securely together. But if you don’t use all the pages in a bound book before the project is completed, what do you do with them? Start another project in the book? I guess it depends on the use of the book. I don’t like to have lots of projects in one book, but I also hate having spare pages at the back of a book.
So that leaves feel. How does the book feel? How is it covered? Does it have a nice texture or colour or design? Is the cover hardback or softback? What’s the paper like to write on? Is it smooth, thin, thick, hateful to fountain pens, dreamy to write on? If the cover feels horrible in your hand and your favourite pen blotches and weeps through all the paper, the chances are the book will not get used.

So, why is the Notebook Emporium so full of intact notebooks? Well, DH would say that it’s because I keep buying them (and he would be right!) but also, although they are functional in size, most of them fail the feel test. I just don’t like writing in them because they are not beautiful enough and they don’t fill me with joy.


  1. This has to be my favorite post I've read on your blog so far. Thank you for providing such a fantastic resource!

    I'm a computer programmer with an affinity for analog tools, a combination that tends to baffle my friends. While I love my computer and iPad and the myriad software they can run I simply haven't found anything that can match the freeform capabilities of pen on paper, not to mention the pleasure of hand-writing.

    I alternately write with a Lamy Safari, Al-Star, and a Pilot fountain pen I picked up in Japan, mostly with Iroshizuku horsetail ink but sometimes with Lamy black or Noodler's bulletproof black ink.

    My notes take many forms and functions and I like to have a single notebook both for desk use and toting around in my computer bag. I realize that my purposes favor multiple notebooks but I like having everything in one place. I suppose I've been spoiled by the everywhere nature of digital media! And therein lies the problem. I'm currently using a Moleskine A5 (I know, a bit narrower than true A5) as my primary notebook and I'm finding it's lacking in several key areas. Most notably, the bleedthrough is becoming unacceptable. Additionally, I find it a good size for my planning, but not quite large enough for topical notes (project notes, notes I take while reading non-fiction, &c.).

    While studying abroad in Japan I was spoiled with a surplus of fantastic writing equipment. There, I used a B5 plastic binder with fountain-pen friendly refills. I found this to be a great size for class notes and the flexibility of loose-leaf paper couldn't be beat. Unfortunately, here in the US there is a deficit of shops in which I can peruse quality notebooks and find one to suit my needs. I'm left instead with searching the internet for that elusive perfect notebook.

    Do you have any particilar recommendations for me? My primary requirements are as follows:

    * fountain-pen friendly paper
    * somewhere between (inclusive) A5 and A4
    * nice quality feel of binding, whether that be binder or book style
    * either ruled, squared, or dotted pages

    Thank you for your time!

  2. Thanks for the kinds words!
    I'm based in the UK so my immediate recommendations might not be available in the US and postage to you might be prohibitive...
    My all-time favourites for notebooks would be Ag-Bag books (A4 or A5) from Clairefontaine - click on the link to Bureau Direct (on the side) and have a look. They may not pass the nice quality binding (being cloth bound) aspect (but pop them in a lovely leather slip cover - that's what I do!!) but they are divine for fountain pens and they come in lined, grid or plain.
    Failing that, Rhodia are also gorgeous. I would choose them over Moleskine (which can have thin paper as you've found). Ciak notebooks are good and can handle fountain pen okay, but sometimes the paper makes my pens 'skip' a bit (which annoys me!). Their biggest size is A5 I think.
    Whitelines do a book with a link to an app so you can photograph your written pages and it saves them to Evernote/Dropbox/it emails you a copy/all of the above. Check out Whitelines Link - there are A5 and A4 notebooks available (lined and grid). Paper quality is good but I don't know if they do anything other than spiral-bound pads (but they could be transferred to a binder I suppose).
    Oxford International do spiral bound pads with multiple holes punched so they will (apparently) fit in any ring binder. I reviewed the A5 on here. I use these at work as I like the layout of the page, but it's maybe too inflexible for you. Fountain pen is fine on them.

    Those would be the immediate thoughts. I'll keep thinking and may post another reply. Let me know how you get on and if there's anything you would recommend?
    Many thanks!

  3. Oh - Midori do notebooks (bit expensive) and also pads of paper. The Journal Shop have them (link on the right - again, no affiliation but always had fabulous service from them).
    I've not used any of them but Midori have a reputation for fountain-pen friendliness. There are a variety available on The Journal Shop (free international delivery if order is >£50 at the moment). They are perhaps a bit pricey but may be what you're looking for??