Some Ways to Fill Notebooks

The other day I came across an interesting list, “50 Ways to Fill a Notebook.” The title strikes a chord with all of us stationery hoarders, surely. I read it with interest, and noted two things: 1. It included some things I would never ever use a notebook for, like gratitude journals (which is why it was interesting!), and 2. It did not include two ways I most often use a notebook for: recording books read, and looking up words in a foreign language. The latter (vocabulary lists) is, for me, by far the quickest way to use up my notebook stock, and I’ve written about it a little here, so, as a way of adding to this list, I’ll talk a little about booklogs this time.

Keeping a booklog is simple. You record the title, author, and date you finished it, one entry for each page. I usually number the book as the nth I’ve read that year; I also try to jot down some impressions (nothing approaching a book report, just a few sentences) if I feel like it. (Sometimes I leave it blank.) The book-per-page scheme means that it can take two to three years to finish a regular Hobonichi-sized notebook, so I’m stuck with one for a long time.

I started keeping a booklog in 2012, and for some strange reason the notebooks I chose for this purpose have all turned out to be duds.

The first notebook I used was the orange Quo Vadis Habana. It features silky-smooth Clairefontaine paper and a nice faux-leather cover. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy writing in it. First of all, the lines were ruled too tightly (5.5 mm!). Secondly, the paper is too smooth for my taste, almost slippery, and some fountain pens don’t take to it very well and will skip. (This happened most often with Pilot pens. And yes, I should have used pencils.) All in all I wished I could finish the notebook quickly, but it took me three solid years.

The second notebook (which is the one I’m using now) is from Bindewerk. This is also an extremely well-made, sturdy notebook, featuring good-quality paper packaged in an appealing design that strives to be different from the tired old Moleskine-ish rubber-banded format. Bindewerk notebooks look wonderful displayed on store shelves and I would not hesitate to recommend one to you. However, while it was much less frustrating than the Habana, it wasn’t a perfect match for my fountain pens either. It uses the kind of paper that’s “good” in the Western sense – thicker with a bit of tooth, with a solid cottony texture. It feels a bit like writing on sketchbook paper, which doesn’t provide that bit of surface “glide” for my pens. But this is purely a matter of personal taste. I am maybe a year away from finishing this one now and am already mulling over new candidates.

You don’t see the point of keeping a booklog? I used to think so too, but let me assure you, it comes in useful. First, you do forget what you’ve read. I recall reading on an online forum the memorable remarks of an inveterate reader: “…and as I closed the back cover of the book I remembered I had read the book before.” This happens. Especially when you’re reading an author who is prolific and whose novels tend to, well, resemble one another, like P. G. Wodehouse or Alexander McCall Smith, it can be difficult to figure out which book you’ve read and which you haven’t. In which case it’s useful to have your notes to jog your memory.

Also, I didn’t expect this kind of benefit when I first started, but going over the titles read in a given year provides one with a kind of perspective. There are bumper years in which you come across a slew of the meatiest, juiciest, most memorable books ever, and then there are years in which you don’t manage to read quite that much because either the literary scene was just not that interesting, or you moved house, or (more insidiously) your family started a Netflix subscription. In any case, because I haven’t been able to keep the books I read with me for some years now (library books were returned, and here I’m more and more reliant on my Kindle), going over my records is a delight in itself: just coming across a title while flipping the pages reminds me of the giddy moments I fell in love with that particular work. The books reside there in the pages of the notebook, side by side, sparkling, occupying a certain beloved moment in my past, even when they are no longer physically on my shelves.

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Stationery Shopping in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, city of 3 million people, the Paris of South America. We visited the city for three days last week. I don’t know if BA had its own Baron Haussmann at one point, but the wide, wide boulevards, stately mansions, and leafy parks did indeed remind one of the French capital. It was fun being in a big city again!

There were even pencils in front of the Casa Rosada (the pink-toned Presidential Palace).

This time I had the opportunity to visit some bookstores, stationers and pen shops. Bookshops in BA are alive and well, and both the big, established chains (El Ateneo, Cúspide) and the smaller independent stores seem to be thriving, at least compared to those in other countries. It was great to see the “neighborhood bookstore” still alive.

For my pen searches, I relied on this list I dug up online before the trip (¡Gracias!). The first one on the list, Casa Pintos, seems to have closed (there was a new building at that address on Avenida de Mayo), but I hit the jackpot at Librería Catalinas. It was a delightful store chock-full of deluxe art supplies (Caran d’Ache sets!) and both current and vintage pens. They carried Parker (including a shelfful of vintage 51’s), Pelikan, Faber-Castell, Lamy, Cross, Sheaffer, Caran d’Ache, some Visconti, and I forget what else. Granted, the stock isn’t huge compared to a pen shop in Europe or Asia, but I tend to have a high opinion of stationers who carry Pilot Parallel pens. If we were to live in BA for any length of time I would undoubtedly be making regular pilgrimages to this shop.

Judging from the display, it looked like Catalinas had been in business for a long time. The most intriguing item in this store was a box of vintage Staedtler jumbo pencils – the owner’s personal collection, and not for sale. They allowed me to take a picture though :)

I also spotted some vintage pencils in a couple of stalls at the awesome San Telmo antiques market. Several Johann Fabers and some Argentinian Van Dykes, mostly colored. I would have picked some up but due to a miscalculation we had no cash on us and couldn’t buy anything. If I ever get another chance to come here I will work through this neighborhood again – porteños don’t seem to throw anything away, and the most amazing stuff comes out of those stately old homes!

My stationery souvenirs from BA are mainly notebooks. Speaking of notebooks, there is one mystery about this city I cannot figure out – there are no Moleskines or Paperblanks or any other internationally known paper brand to be found anywhere. I’m not saying that Moleskine is so great that every nation on earth should import it, but rather that this brand and several others like it have so taken over the world that it is nearly impossible to escape it – and I wonder why this country in particular should be out of the loop. Every time I saw a Moleskine-like rotating display in a bookshop I made a beeline for it, but it always turned out to be a lookalike called BRÜGGE. (I think the line is manufactured in China, but I’m not 100% certain.) The notebooks I did get are both made in Argentina.

This is a notebook in my favorite format: spiral-bound, square grid, lots of pages. The paper feels above average, but I won’t be too disappointed if it bleeds or feathers. One advantage of being a pencil user is that you become much more tolerant of various kinds of paper.

The pencils are both unfamiliar variants of familiar brands. I actually got the Brazilian-made Eco in place of a one-peso change at a bookstore; Argentinians hate small change and will go to some lengths to avoid dealing in coins.

The second is a regular lined and banded notebook, but with cute illustrations inside, from a brand called Monoblock. I don’t know if I’ll actually be using this notebook for anything; this is just a souvenir to remember the city’s great cafés and pastries by :)

The last item of note is marketed as an iPad case, but I have something different in mind. The factors that make Argentina one of the best places in the world to have a steak in also enable it to produce a lot of leather, and BA is known for its multitude of leather-goods shops selling jackets, shoes, bags, wallets, etc. Now, I’ve always wanted a leather desk pad that cushions sheets of paper against a fountain pen nib, ever since I saw one back in Seoul (the brand was Italian). BA shops carry that too – aptly named carpetas para escritorio – but they were too large, and often too complicated (with lids, sleeves, gilt-edged corners etc.). I wanted a smaller pad that was more portable, like a leather clipboard without the clip. And this is just the right size, and at around US$43, quite a bargain I think. (I might still work myself up towards a proper carpeta in the future.) 

And, with all that leather in search of a purpose, I certainly hope the artisans across the river will be interested enough to make other stationery-related articles in the future – notebook covers, pencil sleeves, pencases, and heck, why not sharpener cases? :)

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 :)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

Clairefontaine Clairing Notebooks

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“Clairing” is the name for the Atoma-style disc binding system that Clairefontaine makes (“cahier Clairing”). I got to know of Atoma notebooks through the posts on Bleistift and Lexikaliker, but for the longest time did not realize that my local stationery store (Nota Bene in Montreal) carried them. I finally picked a couple of them up on my last visit.

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(The Linicolor Clairing in green)

The basic Atoma-style notebooks come with cardboard covers. While they are the most reasonable in terms of price and performance, the disc-binding system by its nature is reusable, and manufacturers have been coming up with pricier versions that have sturdier covers. In Clairefontaine parlance, the basic Clairing notebook is classified under the Metric line. The next step up, with white plastic discs and ribbed transparent colored plastic covers, is called Linicolor. The nicest-looking version is called the Kover Book, and comes with transparent rings, a matte plastic cover with front and back flaps, and five section dividers. As far as I could see in the store, Atoma had products corresponding to the Clairefontaine ones that looked very similar and cost about the same (CAD $10 for the Linicolor and $17 for the Kover Book).

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(The Kover Book Clairing in orange, with dividers)

I chose the Clairefontaines because I liked the paper better. I’m used to this sort of Rhodia-style treated vellum paper, which is smooth and takes fountain pen ink well. Atoma paper (as I felt in the store) seemed thinner and a bit more “toothy” (less treated). I wonder if the paper (either Atoma or Clairefontaine) can withstand frequent removals and reinsertments?

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In any case the problem with the Clairing notebooks is that the company does not sell refills. You must buy Atoma refills for these notebooks if you want to keep using them, so the joy that this particular paper brings doesn’t last long. On the other hand you get to try different kinds of paper…

Kokuyo IDEA Notebooks (Tomoe River Paper)

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Recently I discovered an interesting set of small notebooks at Nanami Paper. Tomoe River Paper products are still a rarity, and even then most come in blank sheet form, but this notebook offered the grid, my favorite ruling by far – but it was an interesting kind of ultra-minuscule grid. I bought it anyway because I haven’t been able to find any grid-lined Tomoe Rivers apart from the Hobonichi Planner yet.

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Upon further research, I discovered that this notebook was not intended to be a stand-alone product, but is part of an elaborate planner system invented by a Mr Hideaki Sakuma called the “Jibun-Techo” (The “Me” Planner?). This three-part planner, manufactured and marketed by Kokuyo, consists of a Diary (the usual yearlong monthly/weekly scheduler, that you replenish each year), a Life notebook in which you enter all sorts of information that does not change year by year (lists, family trees, anniversaries, mottoes, addresses, passwords etc.), and a freestyle Idea notebook, which is this one. So basically what they sell at Nanami are the refills for this planner system, minus the planner itself. The Diary and Idea notebooks use Tomoe River Paper, but the Life uses something called MIO Paper.

The Jibun Techo system seems to be founded on a very different philosophy from that of the Hobonichi planner, which is why I can’t imagine myself getting one. In the early months of this blog I began a post entitled “The Limits of Japanese Design”, in which I argued that the simple, Zen-like aesthetic that people think comes naturally to the Japanese was actually the result of a superhuman effort to restrain the instinct towards complexity that, unchecked, would run to information overload. I ditched the post halfway through because it was starting to sound like a rant about something I wasn’t sure I knew all that well. But stuff like the Jibun Techo reminds me of all that all over again… Some ideas are great but just too complicated to follow through in practice (at least for me).