To All the Notebooks I’ve Loved Before

The more I think about stationery, the more I feel that this is all about love. Irrational, hard-to-explain devotion, even when you know all the faults of your particular object of affection. For example, I’ve held on to a few extras of my very favorite notebooks over the years, even though I know they may not make the cut anymore, not now.

These notebooks are from Illums, a Scandinavian-themed interior-and-lifestyle brand in Japan. They are not stationers by any means; their shops feature furniture, kitchen and dinnerware items from brands like iittala, Bodum and Marimekko. They just happened to have a trolleyful of notebooks at one point, and I scooped up some and then went back for more. I was a Hi-Tec-C user at that point in my life, and the smooth white lined paper suited me perfectly (although I now feel, many years down the road, that the paper was just average). 

Looking at it now, I think what I liked best about the notebook was its thick cover. You could knock on it like a door. The average spiral-bound school notebook tends to feel somehow disposable, but this particular feature bestowed a sense of permanence on this A5-sized notebook, like you wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing this kind of thing away. I used several as travel journals, one for transcribing literary quotes, and the rest for studying Hebrew.

This was the apex of my “neat” period. It all went downhill from here… and I can no longer read my own notes. Still, the memories of my youthful effort live on ;)

My second “special” notebook was from Semikolon with very similar features – A5, spiral-bound, with sturdy covers in pleasing solid colors. The paper was wonderful, a smooth but not overly coated cream-colored paper ruled in nut brown. The laid pattern was visible when you held the paper up to the light, but did not interfere with fountain pen nibs. I used these notebooks to record my son’s babyhood. 

I had such good memories of using this notebook that I was overjoyed to find this brand in Montreal. However, it had undergone a complete change of character! Granted, I didn’t know this brand that well (I bought these notebooks in a store in Yokohama, where they were displayed on their own, and didn’t get to have a look at the full range of products Semikolon offered at that time), but it seemed as if they had adopted a dusty-pastel color scheme centered on storage systems while I wasn’t looking. I bought a couple of the current offerings for old times’ sake – a Creativo to use as a planner, and another hardcover notebook for my son – but fell out of love quickly. The paper wasn’t the wonderful one that I knew, and all their notebooks, even bound ones, featured perforated pages, which baffled me. I mean, who wants to tear the pages off a bound notebook in hardcover? Isn’t permanence the main point for these kind of notebooks? I do hope that the notebook I loved lives on in some form and that I will be reunited with it someday.

And now a couple of current favorites: the L!FE Schöpfer notebook, and the Maruman Mnemosyne, both in square rulings. (One more favorite is the Nanami Seven Seas Writer notebook, which I’ve written about in a separate post.) The Schöpfer notebook features velvety-smooth paper with an understated grid pattern; I love writing with fine Japanese nibs in them. These are usually employed as vocabulary notebooks. The quality of the paper in the Noble Note on the right is supposedly superior, but I can never break out the Noble! It’s too intimidating! Must have a go someday. The Maruman Mnemosyne’s rulings are a bit unconventional (the back of the page is blank), and the perforations mean that I tend to tear a lot of pages out, so it mainly serves as a sort of deluxe doodle pad. 

P. S. I’m writing this long post in part to distract myself from the storm raging outside. The weather is usually balmy and very nice around here, but when the wind starts up, it gusts at alarming speeds (>100km/h). It gets on your nerves… Some pencil therapy is in order :)

Advertisements

My First Field Note (And Thoughts on Notebook Sizes)

image

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.

image

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…

image

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).

image

image

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.

image
image

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.

Random Notes on Studying Foreign Languages

image

I used to have very old-fashioned ideas about studying languages, how they should be learned in a very structured environment with a healthy emphasis on reading, writing and grammar. I learned all my European languages in school (high school, university, graduate school), and school was also where I formally studied up on Japanese, building up from my limited childhood vocabulary of playground phrases. Later on I enrolled in a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew. But now, faced with the prospect of having to learn yet another foreign language in my forties, and surveying the desolate landscape of forgotten words and conjugations piled up over the years like so much mental debris, I just don’t feel like I have it in me anymore. So lately I’ve been lounging at home with my first Rosetta Stone program, trying to learn just enough Spanish to get by. Rosetta is formatted like a serial quiz with lots of pictures and, in my opinion, marvellously embodies this very American idea of painless learning, in which you’re having so much fun you don’t even realize you’re absorbing something of value (whereas in other cultures learning is a very conscious activity and necessarily accompanied by a certain amount of angst).

Spanish is a close cousin of French, and the two languages share a lot of vocabulary and grammar between them so I wasn’t expecting a lot of surprises, but still, life filtered through a new language offers interesting food for thought. I learned, for example, that the Spanish word for “pregnancy” is el embarazo. Really? Even when it happens in wedlock? And “to wait”, in Spanish, turns out to be esperar, as in the French word for “hope”, espoir. The word somehow imbues the most mundane moments of waiting with poignancy; you hope, despite everything, that the bus will come.

image

Studying is a good excuse to use up the notebooks one has stockpiled up till now. I’ve even come up with a system that allows me to use pencils and pens equally often: I write down words and sentences as I go along with the lesson the first time, and then overwrite the parts I need to memorize in ink when I go over them again. Up till now I seldom reviewed my notes, which must be the reason my vocabulary retention is so poor (well, my brain cells are also aging); this way I review more often. This also allows me to use thicker-nibbed fountain pens more, that tend to get underused with daily Hobonichi journalling.

image

I first finished up my small Life Vermilion notebook, then started on a notepad I bought many years ago in Korea but never got around to using. The brand (Oxford) is fairly popular back home (you see a LOT of their yellow legal pads) but I hadn’t given much thought to its origins up till now; I vaguely assumed the brand was Korean, even, given the academically aspirational name, but it turns out to be French! A family firm based in Normandy, to be specific, which also owns several other brands, including Canson. This particular format that I have (two-holed, perforated at top) isn’t really for me as I never use binders, but the paper is pleasantly smooth and crease-resistant in a different way than Rhodia or Clairefontaine. The paper has a khaki tint to it, which is accentuated by the grey lines. I might pick up some more of these in a different format next time I’m back home.

LIFE Bank Paper

image

This pad of writing paper has been on my wish list for a long time. I don’t write letters that often, but when I do, it’s amazing how difficult it is to find paper that’s just right for that task – but I think Life Bank Paper comes close. It’s premium paper but with somewhat different characteristics compared to other good paper from Japan I’ve used so far. It’s slightly thicker, with an almost elastic strength to it, and a smooth surface that doesn’t feel like it’s the result of coating but rather of fine milling and pressing.

Why is it called “bank paper”? The term evidently derives from the special paper made exclusively for Mitsubishi Bank (currently renamed The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, after a series of M&As) by Mitsubishi Paper Mills. (They both belong to the Mitsubishi industrial group, as do companies like Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries; Mitsubishi Pencils does not. The latter is a completely unaffiliated, independent company that happens to have the same name.) The bank required good, sturdy paper for long-term recordkeeping, that could withstand all manner of hand- and typewriting, and repeated handling. And this was the answer. It seems like this paper went out of production 20 years ago, after which, according to stationery journalist Tsuchihashi-san, Life resurrected this product, circa 2007.

image

The pink first page is actually a blotter; another hint that the paper is fountain pen friendly.

The cream-colored paper has a watermark, “Three Diamonds”. The original bank paper produced by Mitsubishi Paper Mills had this watermark – “Mitsubishi (三菱)” means “three diamonds”, the “diamond” in question referring not to the precious stone but to the geometrical shape of the rhombus; that’s why the Mitsubishi logo consists of three lozenges joined together. (BTW this detail also features in the historical thriller The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill, if you’re into that kind of thing.) I was curious as to why a notepad from LIFE should be carrying this particular watermark, as it so pointedly refers to another company. I asked LIFE, and got a surprising answer: the paper is actually manufactured by Mitsubishi Paper Mills! (This is why it says “Produced by LIFE” instead of “Made/Manufactured by LIFE”. A subtle difference there.) Three kinds of “Bank Paper” are listed on the Mitsubishi Paper Mills site, and I think this LIFE-branded paper is the one that weighs 87.9g per square meter, the heaviest among the three.

image

There is another story I have to tell relating to this notepad. I could have gotten it much earlier, when I spotted it at a local store. The price quoted at me then was, if I remember correctly, around 25 CAD. I flipped the pad on its back and saw that the original price was 800 yen. (And the Canadian dollar was not even that weak back then.) Now, I know that retailers carry all kinds of overhead and need to make a healthy profit, but really, I couldn’t justify paying three times the original price. I don’t know if it’s the Canadian tax regime, or Quebec, or the cost of doing business here rather than elsewhere, but looking at the prices here I cannot help feeling that they penalize Japanese imports much more harshly than those of other countries. (That, or they expect customers to be more tolerant, or ignorant, of the extent of the markup on Japanese goods.) In the end I got mine from a retailer whose prices were much more reasonable.

It’s actually pretty easy to figure out the original retail price of a Japanese product: the number encased in a rectangle at the back is the price. Not all products are marked like this now, but this was standard practice when all manufactured goods were sold at the list price set by the manufacturer (especially in those days when there was no sales tax to add on). Can you tell how much the Frixion stamp is?

image

The Roman Alphabet in Asian Design

While reading Jinnie’s comments on Rollbahn notebooks over at Three Staples (and, specifically, the German words on the cover), I was reminded of the differences between Asian and Western approaches to design – specifically, stationery design. You may have wondered yourself at one time or another about the nonsensical words often to be found on Asian stationery products.

Notebooks and other items produced in the West typically do not carry much textual information on the cover. The brand logo and product name are judiciously placed, and information judged to be essential is presented in a concise and pleasing manner, but otherwise the cover is kept free of clutter. When a text longer than a couple of words appears (witticisms in the line of “Keep Calm and Carry On”), it is almost always featured as the most prominent design element, and the rest of the notebook is designed around it.

In contrast, the Asian approach is neither here nor there. The cover carries some text, but which often has little bearing to the product at hand. This, I believe, is because Asian designers regard the Roman alphabet as not something to be used to transmit information but as a purely decorative design element. The name of the notebook (if it has one) has to go somewhere so that is not negotiable, but very often designers will feel more comfortable with several lines of small text underneath or in proximity to it. When I was working in Japan, I sometimes observed designers type in a line or two of random letters (xcnaspizmwepofh) in Illustrator or Photoshop, and then try to stretch and position it around the principal label; they would decide what words to put in only afterwards (which is where I came in).

This, in turn, means that any textual information on stationery products is not intended to be actually read; in fact, designers are counting on the fact that it will not be read but only looked at. This of course is the reason that such textual information is rarely presented in Japanese or Korean or any other local language – it will be exposed straightaway as the inanity that it is. Because Asians have to learn to read the Roman alphabet as a second script system, it takes more effort to read it, and text in English or any other European language rarely leaps to the eye. This problem seems particularly severe in Japan, where people are used to seeing foreign words transcribed for them in katakana.

However, English literacy is rising across Asia; hence the popularity of more exotic and visually chic languages such as French and German as a design tool. The point is that they are less likely to be read and understood, and therefore stay truer to their function as decorative elements. French boasts a set of elegant accents (à, é, ô); German has the umlaut (ü) and double s (ß), and the exciting possibility of using multiple capital letters within a sentence. Japan has always been much more Europhilic than either China or Korea, so that explains why we see much more of French and German on Japanese products (which unfortunately doesn’t translate into fluency in those languages).

Below are a couple of examples.

image

Schöpfer is a line of notebooks from LIFE. I have no idea what it means. I think the second line means something like “40 (pages of) heavenly joy”, but I’m not sure, and anyway that’s not the point. The point is that they wanted something, anything, to fill that space up, and those words serve that function. What I find more problematic is the lack of basic typographical skills.

image

Note the lack of spacing in “40sheets” and “Company,Limited”. This, more than anything, drives me nuts. Also, as you can see from the ugly text below the fountain pen nib logo, it is very, very hard to find good Roman alphabet typography in Asian stationery products. This is not to say that Asian designers lack the requisite skills; rather, this reminds you of just how difficult it is to acquire visual fluency in a foreign alphabet.

Here is one more example, from the notebook company Morning Glory of Korea.

image

Here, again, there is a block of text just to… place some weight on the lower right hand corner, I suppose. I used to cringe every time my eyes passed over stuff like this in the past. But mercifully someone seems to have proofread it this time!

image

Don’t get me wrong: I am not making fun of LIFE or Morning Glory (or any other company, for that matter). I love these notebooks, they contain some of the best paper for fountain pen use, and I will keep using them no matter what is on the cover. But I would just like to say to them: Leave well enough alone. Have the courage to leave spaces blank. And, if you must, fill it with colors, patterns, motifs, anything, but spare us this kind of nonsense!