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When I was a child, I thought about a lot of things. I don't mean that I would ask one question after another, bouncing from one topic to another. I would come across something and spend some real time thinking it through. I would become a keeper of notebooks.

For example, I remember the topic of slavery in the U.S. coming up in fourth grade. Even as a nine-year-old suburban white kid, the sort of injustice that cannot be overlooked. So I evaluated several possible courses of action. On one hand, it seemed that there was some sort of imbalance in certain races; balance seemed to require that black people should for a time own white people. On the other hand, not all white people participated at the time, and not all people in this country today descend from people who were in this country at the time. Then there's the issue of the effect individually: to impose a penalty on someone for something that he hasn't done cannot be allowed in a free society. I spent days weighing options, subconsciously finding arguments for and against different conclusions; from time to time, it would bubble up to the surface and I would focus on it. More often, I would hear or read something that seemed to play into the debate and I'd try to understand it in context. Soon enough, I discovered that I didn't always have the luxury of disengaging from whatever was happening every time that I heard something that seemed worthy of additional thought.

By the time I was a teenager, I realized the value of having a notebook always available. Coming across something that warranted further investigation could simply be noted. Thoughts that bubbled up could be noted even if they were incomplete or required consideration another time. Thus I could stay engaged with what I was doing without losing the thoughts that came to me as I considered complex issues. Setting aside time to read my notebook and to sort through what I had collected afforded me the ability to think about things that I thought important or interesting, even if such matters weren't deemed urgent by the world around me.

I've tried many types of notebooks including reporters' notebooks, tiny binders for holed looseleaf pages, various electronic gadgets. For about two years or so I used a Palm IIIx for everything and was reasonably happy with it, but for a few things: writing a note in Russian requires transliterating into Latinic characters, drawing a sketch wasn't really much of an option, and the time that I “saved” by having everything in electrons from start to finish just increased the number of times that something scribbled in raw form went further along in the editing process than it would have otherwise. Little annoyances can add up to an unworkable final result.

Finally, I wound up creating my own notebooks by taking large sheets of paper and folding them strategically. The system works like this: I take my notes, and then later I revisit my notes, putting them into some electronic form, separating various subjects, editing the notes, and working them into whatever form they will take. (I use a spiral-bound notebook in my job; I'm writing here about personal notebooks, dealing with issues generally unrelated to my employment.) Sometimes they move toward things that get published. Other times, they might be observations that I use in personal correspondence. Still other times they are essays written for myself in the process of forming an opinion, or that serve as a foundation or framework for research projects.

The system worked pretty well overall, though not without problems of its own. My notebooks made by elaborate paper-folding were just the right size but the number of pages made them difficult to manage and were cumbersome for more elaborate entries that I might be inclined to make while riding a bus, while waiting for someone to meet me, or when quoting from something I found at the library.

In October, I was in search of some stationary, the sort of thing that would be appropriate for personal correspondence. I was at a large bookstore and decided to see what they might have in stationary since I was there. Going into the section with fairly low expectations, I was surprised to find that I was still hoping for too much. A few minutes and a bit of frustration could have been saved if instead of “stationary,” the sign read, “testosterone-free zone.” At least I confirmed my suspicion that I would need to visit a proper stationary shop.

Rounding the corner of the aisle, I wandered into a more hormone-neutral area where I found some notebooks that intrigued me right from the start. They're small: three inches by five inches, with thirty-two sheets of ruled paper inside, making sixty-four usable pages. The back cover even has a bit of a pocket useful for storing stray bits of paper that could be quite useful to keep. “Moleskine” was embossed discreetly on the bottom of the back cover.

I figured that I would give these a whirl: they were almost identical in size, but with more pages, than the notebooks I had been making myself, and seemed to be more convenient. I bought a pack of three such notebooks. Included was a separate bit of paper, entitled, “Storia di un taccuino leggendario” (though, truth be told, I found another page entitled “The history of a legendary notebook” to be much more useful).

I didn't need to be told that other people kept such notebooks: that someone bothered to create the notebooks and to get them sold in a major book retailer was a pretty good clue that my “great idea” of creating small notebooks was not entirely unique. “Moleskine,” the insert began, “is the legendary notebook used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Earnest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin.” So the notebook idea wasn't an original, but at least I'm in good company—even if calling Hemingway “European” is a stretch. (And the insert plays to the ego. A good bit of marketing, that.)

I have since filled my first three Moleskine notebooks and much of what has appeared on Ergo Sum since then started life as a scribble in my notebook. They are terribly convenient and I do hope that I never need to return to making my own. I'd much rather be able to focus on what to put in them.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-05-01 05:19 AM

Noting worth

Posted by JohnStevenson at 2007-12-27 01:04 PM
Great site!
Aside from that, have you seen the IREX reading tablet?
It allows scribbling and reading, with many hours of display time. Even scribbling on pdfs.
I have tried many sizes of notebook and pad, and have yet to find "the best".
I like pocket size to carry, and drafting table to draw. They are not size-compatible.
The Wacom Cinque is great, but not pocket size.

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