My First Field Note (And Thoughts on Notebook Sizes)

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Last week I finally got to join the legions of Field Notes users, thanks to a kind friend. After all this time! I first encountered the bewildering FN phenomenon upon joining the blogosphere, and while I did see a few specimens in my local stationery store in Montreal, I never got around to buying them for myself. Now that I have one in my hands, I find myself struck above all not by its design or paper quality, but by its dimensions. I’ve never seen a notebook in this particular size before. And I’ve been thinking about why this should throw me as much as it does, when notebooks are free to come in all shapes and sizes.

For starters, a Field Note is really small. And thin. And tallish, considering its other dimensions. It says 48 pages, but that means 24 sheets, or, rather, twelve sheets folded and stapled in the middle. I’ve never seen a notebook that cries out this loudly to be put in a checkered flannel shirt pocket; I find the shape very masculine. Women’s clothing don’t usually have the kind of pockets to store these in, and if carried around in purses or bags, they would crease right away. This notebook confounds my Asian sensibilities – too thin and undetachable to be a memopad, too small and vertically long to be a notebook. Uncategorizable.

I’ve set the Field Note next to some other small notebooks/memopads I have: the Kokuyo Campus Notebook No. 5 (48 pages), a Life Noble Memo Pad (B7, 100 sheets), and another Life notebook (N15b, 40 sheets). In this size, products I’m familiar with usually come with more sheets that tend to be more square and glued together. It’s a distinct advantage of FN’s that the stapled pages lie flat, allowing the user to make the most of the small page. But it has too few pages compared to other premium-quality notebooks of its size; also, while Japanese brands tend to concentrate more on the quality of paper inside, Field Notes is all about design. And the design is undeniably well done; it’s another example of the best kind of Western design, that pulls together a seemingly simple combination of color, texture, and typeface, and achieves something very clean and classic.

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If I were resident in the U.S., I think I would have tried a subscription if only for the pleasure of being dazzled every season by its covers, but once abroad the cost becomes prohibitive. (BTW I wonder how thick the pages are, in terms of grams per square meter?) And I already have some notebooks too pretty to use, similarly American-made: Rifle Paper notebooks. I am sure my Field Notes would suffer the same fate if I ever signed up for them…

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Thinking about sizes helped me clarify a problem I had for a long time with my Hobonichi Weeks but couldn’t put my finger on up till now. The Weeks is thin, light, portable, and employs this wonderful Tomoe River paper, and I haven’t had any problems using it. However, for some reason, I like it less than my original Hobonichi Techo (planner), and am thinking all the time about what weekly I can replace it with next year. Why? I realized that its dimensions reminded me (however subliminally) of the basic “business diary” so ubiquitous back home and in Japan. There are two popular formats for “business” diaries: one is in a weekly format, thin, vertically long and has gilded pages, and the other is a larger and much thicker page-per-day diary. Both kinds are produced with vinyl or synthetic leather covers in drab brown or black, and are often issued to employees by corporations at the end of the year. When I was writing up this post I asked my husband whether he had a company-issue diary, and of course he did (seen below next to my Weeks). The actual sizes vary but the general dimensions remain strikingly similar (both kinds of diaries can be seen in this size chart at Takahashi Shoten, a Japanese publisher).

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Oh, that dreadfully kitschy gilding! I will never be able to enjoy Smythson’s or any other gilded notebook on its own merits :(

I guess the Hobonichi people tried to take the business edge off the Weeks by making it slightly larger and roomier (mindful of the large number of female Techo users maybe?). It’s officially called “wallet size” (and it does match the size of my wallet), but it smacks of crumpled suits and Samsonite document bags all the same. The Nikkei starts its review of the Weeks with the sentence, “The business diary that Hobonichi, with its philosophy of mixing work and leisure, came up with is in a left-sided weekly format…” So for me, long and thin equals “official” and “business”, whereas more square formats signal “laid-back”, “relaxed”, and “private”.

I think the size factor also underlies the almost universal affection for the original Hobonichi Planner. It’s a standard A6, 105mm-by-148mm format, but more importantly, this is exactly the size of Japanese pocket books (bunkobon). Non-Japanese users of the Techo don’t seem to grasp the full significance of this size even when told of it, because in the States, “pocket-sized” paperbacks actually come in several different sizes (all larger than the standard Japanese one) and use coarser paper which make for a thicker volume. All in all, American paperbacks don’t look or feel much like notebooks. However, Japanese paperbacks are tailored to a much more uniform size across publishers, use smoother, thinner paper (and are therefore more compact), and more popular in their home country. The bunkobon is an immediately recognizable and beloved format. In Japanese bookstores, the bunkobon shelves are allotted by publisher, and the row upon row of precisely matched, color-coded small books can be a sight to behold.

Here is a sample row of bunkobon (in the middle), with regular hardcovers on the left.

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The bunkobon is 1/4 of an A4-sized sheet; top left is a collection of essays by Haruki Murakami, top right is the Hobonichi Planner, bottom left is a Life Premium notebook, and bottom right is a Midori Cotton MD notebook.

Given this background, I am naturally interested in other A6-sized notebooks, such as these Kokuyo “Buncobon” notebooks that JetPens is offering (but I’m not ordering them, as shipping alone costs $47!). Muji seems to make some out of recycled paper too. It was interesting to read the comments, though, for the former. People seem to dislike the soft covers, but in my opinion the soft cover is precisely what gives the notebooks their bunkobon flavor; more durable covers should be found in other, mostly Western brands, such as the Quo Vadis Habana notebooks. The memories of a soft, pliable, and light book are what give these Japanese notebooks their particular appeal.

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17 thoughts on “My First Field Note (And Thoughts on Notebook Sizes)

  1. I think that whether or not Field Notes fits in your pockets fit into your pants pockets really depends on the brands you wear. I certainly have some women’s dress pants that they do fit into. However, there are many women’s pants that they won’t . However, they do fit into all of my women’s suit jacket pockets as well as coat pockets. I don’t see the size as being masculine or feminine. Many people, myself included use them with a cover to reduce tears or damage. The number of pages is conducive to being used for about 4 weeks- or a month. Which I find helps me to organize my planning for work and formerly school.

    What I gathered from the rest of your post is that this size and number of pages just isn’t for you. You write about how there aren’t enough pages and how the format is too tall and narrow for you uses. Labeling the notebooks as masculine due to their size undermines these points. I could see if you said that you found the design to be masculine, or their marketing, or some other aspect, but size?There are certainly other brands of pocket notebooks that I think have a masculine marketing slant, Field Notes isn’t one of them. If anything I see their marketing as a deep exploration of how much they enjoy printing techniques, having fun with what they do, and a sense of happiness.

    I’m not exactly a huge Field Notes fan, but I’m a fan of the pocket notebook size of 3.5×5.5 inches. It is a size that works for me, and when I wear pants that they don’t fit into, i toss them in my bag. They aren’t going to get dinged up too badly in the time it takes me to fill one.

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    1. Hi Leslie, thank you for your lengthy comment and sorry if I ruffled a few feathers. The point of the post was not whether Field Notes was for me or not (I do like it, it’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s cute), but rather that I found its proportions to be unusual, and that maybe notebook sizes register deep down in our subconscious and certain proportions spark certain associations. (I honestly didn’t expect to notice the size that much myself.) But on the other hand, there are reams of Field Notes reviews already out there dissecting pretty much every other aspect so I thought maybe one crazy discussion about size could be forgiven ;)

      People will find uses for any given size and I think that of Field Notes is more practical than others (actually I find the blue Life notebook at the very right in the second picture inconvenient to use – it’s very good paper but as the sheets are glued together, the notebook doesn’t lie flat, and you either have to break its spine or hold down the pages, very uncomfortable for such a small notebook). There are two points I would raise in criticism of FN, one being that there are too few pages for a notebook priced at that level, and the other is that once the notebooks cross the border the price point gets uncomfortably high. I understand the reasons for the former – the originals are designed that way and they have to keep the number of pages down in order to be able to staple them I guess. This works because they are marketing a narrative, a story with a specific design that resonates with American consumers. However, I’m naturally interested, as a foreigner, in what happens when they are forced to stand alone without that narrative to explain them. Maybe they won’t have to, ever? It doesn’t seem to me as though FN is terribly interested in overseas markets, and they sell out comfortably at home. But for those of us outside the U.S., it will be a welcome addition to the currently very boring stacks of Moleskines and Paperblanks😉

      P.S. I would also be very interested in knowing whether there are more men using Field Notes than women (I’ve always assumed that the market for these small notebooks was mainly focused on women, but maybe that’s not true?) – are there any people crunching these kind of numbers? hehe.

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      1. No feathers ruffled, just some deep thoughts sparked.

        Here in the US, $9.99 is pretty much the price for a 3-pack of pocket notebooks, I agree that it seems high. A brand with much better paper- Story Supply Company has the same # of pages (which seems to be the standard here in the US, perhaps a manufacturing limit?) but is much thicker and substantial due to a heavier weight cover and paper. Allow US based Furrow books has a thicker cover stock and better paper, but 48 pages, again is thicker due to heavier cover and paper. Furrow specifically went after a paper that was fountain pen friendly because the owner is a FP user. On the flip side, Curnow Books Back Pocket Journals are filled with 48 pages of Tomoe River paper, which is super thin, and the notebooks feel insubstantial to me, frail even.

        With any of these notebooks I’m not sure I pay too much attention to the narrative. When I started to use pocket notebooks it was with the Moleskine Volant and I used them for work- I used them specifically to track my work flow and to keep track of my to do list. For awhile I even made my own pocket notebooks. Once I had some spare pocket money and less time I started to buy them. The narrative was less important that being able to stuff a notebook into my pocket while at work. If I were to track my notebook use it would be 3×5 spiral notebook, Moleskine Volant, handmade pocket notebooks, hardcover moleskines, back to small tin pocket notebooks (handmade), then to any brand of pocket notebooks… For me I buy them for the form factor.

        IN regards to your PS. I read in your about page that you aren’t on FB, there is a group called Field Nuts- essentially a group of collectors and users of Field Notes notebooks. Initially I’d say the group was about 75% men, and as time went on I’d say it is about 50/50, but with men being the more vocal members of the group. (i’m not longer in the group too much testosterone for me and a lot of collecting weirdness.) Often times little notebooks like these are marketed as “men’s goods.” Word notebooks recently had a marketing campaign in which they tagged many of their instagram photos with “mensgoods.” Which just seemed so… Dumb to me. First off it alienates half their market, and tags their product with something that it inherently is without the need to be tagged.

        This kind of gender based marketing and viewing of products is fascinating to me and I could probably spend all day reading and writing about it. So I’ll stop here.

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      2. Leslie, wow, I didn’t know there were all these interesting notebook manufacturers out there! And one that uses Tomoe River Paper even! They all seem to be more or less the same size as the Field Notes; I remember reading somewhere that FN pioneered the trend for small pocket notebooks, I wonder if they were the first to make softcover notebooks of this particular size or if they were just the first to become widely known. This format seems to be very portable indeed and I would prefer them too to ones like the Volant.

        Re the gender-based marketing: maybe the need was there, at least some of it? And they must see some merit in identifying their brand in that manner? Someone told me long ago about how men and women shop differently for clothes: women would try on fifteen different items and still leave the boutique empty-handed, while men enter the premises only when they have to buy something, and will often pick up additional items that the salesperson suggests. Men seem to be very dependable customers :) and I’ve often seen that they buy on a different scale than women, and have relatively deeper pockets for hobbies. Maybe they want to capture this segment and keep them loyal…

        When I first joined a pen forum I was sure it was going to be more than half women, because I instinctively associated the act of writing (and in colored ink, no less) more with women than men, but boy was I wrong! The collector’s instinct is definitely lodged on a Y chromosome.

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  2. Pocket notebooks have been around for much much longer than Field Notes, even FN points out their their Brand is modeled after old Feed and Seed giveaway advertising notebooks.

    Perhaps they made them attractive or more mainstream among stationery users? There is something to be said about their fun colors and patterning.I think the Moleskine Cahiers came out before FN. Also, in the early days of Etsy, and even eBay there was a market for notebooks similarly sized to Field Notes. There is a whole subsection of fancy hand stitched pocket notebooks that bookbinders use to showcase their skills.

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    1. Yes, I was aware that vintage “originals” existed, but it is interesting to know that other modern, commercial offerings were available before FN came along. They definitely popularized it I think (again, the power of design!).
      Still, if you say the other examples were all similarly sized, I find it intriguing. This particular size is very exotic for me (although we have these long business diaries, they are bigger and thicker than these American pocket notebooks). Maybe the Asian version of the pocket notebook ended up being more square because Japanese is written vertically, and vertical lines on an already vertically long page is a bit… unbearable? Of course, there’s economics to think of too – A6 to minimize the waste. Just my theory😉

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      1. Personally, I think that FN saw the popularity of the Moleskine cahier (and hand made versions)and capitalized upon it and tweaked it just enough to make it their own. Similar to what Moleskine did with their marketing and the “moleskine” notebook- which was a generic pocket notebook with waterproof oil cloth covers using a butterfly or smythe stitch binding. All moleskine did was trademark capital M Moleskine and write some nice ad copy about famous authors using them, when they had never infact used the modern notebook, rather the generic handmade version.

        I wonder how much of the sizing is Asia and Europe has to do with the standardized A and B paper sizing that the US refuses to use? and how much of that is related to how the various countries write as well as the tools they use to write?

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      2. Yes, the Moleskine cahier would have been an influence. Although I haven’t seen a cahier in exactly the same proportions as an FN – I think there are larger and smaller sizes. I always think that Moleskine is the Starbucks of the notebook world – they did make the format popular enough so that everybody else started copying them…

        As for your question re: paper sizes, I in turn am wondering whether the 3.5×5.5 inch size confers any advantage when cutting the paper. Also, I’ve noticed subtle differences in size between the Asian and European A6 notebooks; the pages of a Habana notebook are smaller because they are designed to fit snugly inside the hard cover, whereas Japanese notebook pages are of the same size as the soft cover. The edges being flush with the cover is also another characteristic of the bunkobon.

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      3. PS – the point you raise in your second paragraph is very interesting, I’m still thinking about it. The only thing that leaps to mind just now is that American sizes are mostly larger… Do you have this system of calculating paper size by dividing it, i.e. when you fold a “letter-size” sheet in half you come up with another standard size? I should read up more on American paper sizing before even attempting to answer this question. This correlation between writing instruments and practice is one of my all-time favorite topics :)

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  3. The moleskine Cahiers that I own are alls 3.5×5.5 inches in size. they do have all sorts of other sizes, but the pocket sized cahiers that I own are all the same size as Field Notes. (but have more pages of thinner even lower quality paper)

    That’s the weird thing with US paper sizes, nothing we do is standardized. You fold an 8.5×11 sheet of paper and you get 5.5×8.5, some companies make notebooks in that size, but generally you’ll find notebooks that are either 6×9 inches or 5.5×7.75 inches. Some companies, like Staples make their Arc refills in half letter size because they know a lot of their customers cut letter size in half. Composition notebooks are 7.5×9.5 inches. the only places I’ve seen that cater to half letter size here in the States is Staples and Target. Both place sell 3 ring binders for half letter size paper.

    I think that some of this hearkens back to all the different manufacturers producing all of their own notebooks- you’d find some companies making a size just a little different from their competition. Some things are a standard size seemingly out of convention- composition notebooks are always about 7.5×9.5 inches. pocket sized ranges from 3×5 inches up to 4×6. and then typical spiral bound school notebooks are all similarly sized, legal pads are all similar sizes. This a hypothesis but I suspect that some of standard sizing came about because companies want their paper inserts to fit into covers- legal pads need to be able to fit into the covers attorneys use, and notebook paper once torn out of a notebook needs to fit into a 3 ring binder. Same with school paper. I remember that back in the day my school used to get reams of lined paper- some of it was 8×10, which doesn’t fit well into a binder and some of it was 7×9. Now that schools no longer buy much paper and parents are expected to provide it makes sense for the manufacturers to get on board with standard sizing. If a kid can’t fit it into their backpack or their binder, it’s not going to get sold.

    Thanks for geeking out with me on this. :)

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    1. The pleasure is all mine, Leslie! You know, when I’m working on one of these posts, there is always a moment when I wonder whether all this isn’t pure drivel – but I am so glad I put it up, I learned so much from your comments. I never even realized that the Volant notebooks were the same size as these; I used quite a few Moleskines in my time but they were all either smaller or larger, so I never had the impression that any of them were as “tall” as an FN.

      I’m one of those foreigners who immediately space out when something’s quoted in inches ;) I’ll need to measure them out later in order to have a more exact sense of their size. I always liked the slightly longer American letter envelopes, though – classy :)

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  4. Oh my so many interesting topics here, I don’t know where to begin! Or if I have anything insightful to add. But first of all, woo hoo, Field Notes! I’m in it too deep, so it was refreshing to hear your thoughts on it. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed the dimensions to be what struck you the most. Something I haven’t had to think about in awhile, since I’ve already accepted it for what it is :) I remember noting how small they were when I first got FNs but what struck me as unique was how thin they were, just bound by staples, and of course the design. I don’t know how they decided on 3.5″ x 5.5″ but it’s interesting to note the original FN (made by designer Aaron Draplin with Gocco!!) has a different ratio (see https://www.instagram.com/p/fNrdzBgubo/) All I know is that Draplin handmade some FNs because he didn’t like any sketchbooks out there and gave some to his friends as (promotional?) gifts. And I’d like to think that that origin story explains the number of pages (and the graph grid). As for pricing, I agree FNs don’t give you the best of value per page. But maybe that’s why they’re bundled as 3-packs? I’ll never know for sure how they arrived at the current combination of the dimensions/# of pages/3 per pack, so I’m only speculating. But it fits their narrative well: FNs are meant to be pocketable (not too many pages) and utilitarian (not precious or irreplaceable).

    And based on my experience, I can tell you I have a lot more male followers on Instagram and Twitter than females. Very unscientific survey, since I can only go by people’s avatars and names ^_^;; But it’s been changing lately, I think. I see more and more people using Field Notes in conjunction with their Midori TNs.. I can also tell you that many boutiques I’ve come across that sell FNs as accessories are often geared towards men. I guess it’s no coincidence, since FNs have that rugged, no-frills appeal.

    About marketing overseas: I wondered the same thing, Sola! I know FN talked about China, and they’re in Japan already.. but I always wondered how the Japanese consumers view Field Notes. I know some boutiques carry FNs in Korea as well. Have you seen them there?

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    1. Jinnie, thank you for the wealth of information. I’m starting to think that the value of the comments far outweighs the original post ;) and thank you for taking my unorthodox observations in stride!

      I haven’t seen any FNs in the wild in Korea (but then I didn’t visit that many shops when I was back, in February), but as far as I can see they are available in one or two online shops. The markup is pretty severe. If I were in Korea I would certainly try some for the novelty, but it would definitely cost if I were to keep the habit. As for marketing, I’ve found an introductory article in Japanese by the stationery journalist Tadashi Tsuchihashi, and it is mostly about its origins too. I wonder how FNs are doing in Japan.

      Up till now I had assumed that the dimensions of a notebook were dictated by economics, but it doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. In one of Tsuchihashi-san’s books he introduces the Diamond Memo spiral notebooks, a best-selling item of more than 50 years from Midori, and he says their width and length were determined by the average size of the breast pocket on men’s dress shirts (the Midori people bought up all sorts of dress shirts and measured the pockets); they had to fit in there easily, with additional room for a pen. Maybe FNs were designed in a similar way? :)

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  5. What a great discussion prompted by your post (I thought I was a geek, but I’m afraid I could only eavesdrop and not contribute at that level of geeking)! Most of the stationery bloggers I read are westerners, so it’s interesting to hear your perspective.

    Tina

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    1. Tina, thanks for your kind words :) Sometimes I don’t feel like I know enough to write about something, but then I learn so much from the feedback! I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion too :)

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