November 27 2009
As a child, about the only real compensation for the new school year were the new notebooks. There in the normally sacrosanct depths of the stationery cupboard they lay in their sleek covers, the pristine sheets as yet unsullied by my wayward scrawl. The notebooks were colour-coded – green for history, purple for English, grey for Latin – and came in two sizes: A4 and A6. The sensual excitement of handling the notebooks, the smell of the paper, the shine of the covers became part of the intellectual excitement of learning new things, and I became hooked. So much so that when I am kick-starting a creative process today there is still eager anticipation about acquiring a new notebook for the task ahead.
Everyone has a notebook. Even those people permanently attached to electronic devices have at some point – in the Sahara, at the North Pole, on the Tube – had to resort to pencil and paper to jot down an address or record a thought. For those of us tied by occupation to our notebooks, they are far more than incidental. They are like colleagues, or even spouses – an essential stay against chaos – and are required as a minimum to be robust and fit for purpose, and are much more agreeable when beautiful. Some people insist on lines, others on plain paper; some like the generosity of A4, others prefer the convenience of A5; some tough it out with recycled paper, others require the best acid-free; some people choose colours in rotation to make filing easy, others like varying covers at whim.
People also turn to notebooks to sustain their inner worlds with diaries, travel journals, dream journals, or notepads for novels, scripts or music. This is why a notebook is such a wonderful present. It becomes in the giving an acknowledgment of this usually hidden world. Whether the cover is cheap and witty, or in handsome fine leather, you are offering not just a present but a homage.
For someone smitten with nostalgia for the school stationery cupboard there are many retro exercise books that would make amusing presents. Kate Seaward has taken a basic school-exercise book in blue, green or pink, and printed on it a perky bird with speech bubble saying “Tweet tweet” (£4). Her hand-drawn Busy Bee Notebook and My Best Sketchbook, with plain paper, are also charming. Another player in the retro line is the Korean company O-Check, whose range of notebooks is available at Liberty. O-Check Design Graphics was established in 2000 in Seoul – the name is derived from the Korean word “gongcheck”, which translated literally means “a book with nothing inside”. The muted, stylish, discreetly coloured notebooks are an incitement to get busy. I particularly like the surreal old-school-style notebooks with animals and off-kilter French phrases: “Au printemps à l’écureil” with a squirrel (£3.95), or “Au Cerf Le Cahier” with a stag (£4.95).
The real workhouse notebook, however, for almost anyone with creative aspirations is the now ubiquitous Moleskine (from £6.99). For those who have not read the legend on the inside cover, these notebooks, covered not in moleskin but in a smooth matte-black stiff board, with 192 pages of high-quality cream paper, lined, squared or plain, were the staple tool of French modernist painters and Francophone writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin. They have slipped easily into the pockets of generations of writers and filmmakers ever since. The range had a near demise in the 1980s but was revived in Milan in 1997, and has now expanded into funky colours – lime green, pink, blue and red – and, beyond the sketchbooks and notebooks, you can now buy a version laid out as a storyboard. There are also new soft-covered versions that will bend to fit more awkward pockets.
The General Trading Company stocks an attractive alternative: the Semikolon is a hard-bound range in yellow, orange, blue, red, black or cream cloth (pocket book, £10.95). These also come in A4 (£22) with lovely spacious lines – plenty of room for revisions – and in a travel-journal version with map-of-the-world endpapers, unlined sheets and pencil holder (£19.95). For a special journey, however, you might want to take one of Ella Doran’s Travel Journals designed for John Lewis (£16), complete with transparent inner sleeves and envelopes for saving seeds or flowers.
For a truly memorable present, you might want to buy a large soft-leather notebook from Liberty, such as a Circa (from £28), a Giulio Giannini e Figlio (large version, £54) or a classy embossed design by Pinetti (from £34). These luxurious leathers look as if they alone could inspire a fluent surge of creativity.
More demure is an exquisite tiny notebook that can fit in a jacket pocket or handbag. Available at the fine-stationery website The Paperie, San Francisco-based Cavallini & Co has a beautiful range with classic covers – an A6 notebook with the front cover of The Natural History of Birds (£10.50), for instance, or an A5 notebook with butterflies, Les Papillons Au Jardin (£12.95).
Penguin has a range of amusing lined A6 notebooks featuring book covers and vintage Ladybird Easy-Reading Janet and John artwork (from £9.95). A spot check of journalists, designers and curators reveals, however, that the most covetable notebook of all is a Smythson. “It is the paper – so light – but it doesn’t break through,” one journalist said. “It’s the convenience,” said the curator, “and the wonderful range of colours.” The designer explained how he has customised the pen-holder to fit his own pen.
While some may go for the cute titles embossed on the front covers (“I’ve Got Nothing To Wear” version, £57), I have my eye on this winter’s new Malachite range. For any loved ones reading, a plain malachite Duke’s Manuscript with briar-wood slide (£190) or pocket-sized Panama (£87) would be most acceptable this year.