Line drawing of a Cowboy Mounting a Horse

Roping Your First Moleskine Notebook

When you try to research productivity, planning and getting things done on the Internet, you come across solutions involving office software, information management, Internet notebook applications, outliners, mind mapping tools, cloud apps, and ways to be more productive with your computer and your phone and the web. Yet, for many people, the ultimate productivity and information management tool is — huh? — a little tiny paper notebook?

If that little tiny notebook is a Moleskine, or one of its various clones, the answer is yes! The thing about simplicity is that it is adaptable to many uses, many people, and many environments.

Like a cowboy, who travels light and keeps his tools simple and close by, you don’t need to hold up a bank to round up a few Moleskine notebooks, brand ’em, break ’em in, and git to work.

This writer has been using imitation Moleskines for a year and a half and, like a cowboy and his horse, now I never go anywhere without it. Do a Google or Bing search for “Moleskine tips” or “Moleskine hacks” and you’ll find article after article by Moleskine users on how they use them to do almost anything creative, from making a shopping list, to Getting Things Done, to writing, drawing, painting, or using it as a travel diary. There are blogs dedicated to each of those activities.

Photo of Mounted Cowboys

These Ranch Hands Could be Moleskine Users, includin’ the Young’un

So, how in an age of fast computers, the Internet, smart phones, and tablets, is a paper notebook often the preferred tool for the job at hand? Let us count the ways:

20 Reasons a Notebook is Better than an Electronic Device

  1. You never have to worry about battery life. It always starts up, even after storing on a shelf for years.
  2. There’s an endless supply of styluses available. (Most people call them pens and pencils.)
  3. No need to install or upgrade software.
  4. Instant start up — no waiting time. Most come with bookmarking hardware.
  5. Portability.
  6. It won’t break if you drop it.
  7. No instruction manuals needed to start using.
  8. Cheap, easy-to-install add-on hardware: sticky notes, rubber bands, 3×5 cards, paper clips and business cards are standard accessories.
  9. It’s compatible with scanners and cameras for digital translation.
  10. You never have to boot one up to get through airport security.
  11. It never accidentally erases files; nor do viruses attack it. The most dangerous malware would be a match.
  12. Easy archiving — put it on a shelf or in a drawer.
  13. Easy upgrade to new books.
  14. Easily switch from text to draw mode to outlines to mind maps with a full range of drawing tools. (Ever try to draw a quick map of directions on a phone?)
  15. They work in all languages, no special software necessary. (There is limited language translation support, however.)
  16. If you use it during a meeting, nobody accuses you of checking your email or Twitter accounts, and it’s less annoying than the tap-tap-tap of laptop computers.
  17. Speakers are sometimes impressed that you think what they are saying is important enough to record. You can also quietly make notes during a phone conversation.
  18. Corporate social media restrictions and IT department rules do not apply.
  19. Notebooks are easier on the environment than electronics and come with little or no plastic packaging. They have been known to archive for a thousand years, but you can easily recycle them, too.
  20. They have a large online community of fans.
Photo of Cowboy on a Horse near Homestead

OK, that was fun, but I bet that some of you are still wondering, “What exactly IS a Moleskine? And why is it spelled funny?”

A Very Brief History of Moleskines

Moleskine-style books, or at least some form of covered, stitch-bound notebooks, were made in France and were apparently used by, among others, famous literary people and artists (rumor and marketers claim Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso used them or something similar). At one time, the covers were actually made using tanned moleskins; now, they use plastic or leatherette. Since 1997, the name Moleskine has been used by an Italian company (hence the Italian spelling), which has the notebooks made in China and distributed world-wide. They come in a variety of sizes and formats which have become popular with all kinds of creative people. You can pronounce the name “moal-skin”or the more Italianate “molay-skeenay.”

A Tenderfoot’s Guide to Moleskine Basics

The basic Moleskine notebook uses fairly high quality paper and comes in several sizes from a small pocket size (even a miniature size that could get lost in a shirt pocket), to larger sizes suited for journaling, note-taking, drawing and other artwork. Pages can be blank, lined, grid squares or dot grid. Covers are soft or hardbound (enough to withstand moderate side or rear pocket storage). Moleskine also offers thinner paper-bound “cahiers” (French for “notebook” or “report”) which could be combined inside a single cover. In addition to writing and sketching papers with sewn-in binding, Moleskine also offers watercolor-safe paper and art books where the paper is not sewn into the binding to allow the user to use the pages accordion style. Moleskine offers limited edition covers as well as planners, calendars and even a series of printed city guides with maps and other info about the city at hand.

Recently, much has been made of a special Moleskin design that works with customized iPhone and iPad apps to scan and file your hand-written (or drawn) notes into the digital Evernote notebook software (another product we will be writing about). Frugal Guidance would love to review some, sometime (especially if somebody could donate a couple).

The standard pocket notebook comes with about 200 pages of paper, end papers (inside the covers), a sewn-in fabric bookmark, an elastic band to hold the notebook closed, and an expandable pocket in the back. Many people customize the books by numbering the pages, adding Post-Its, and use them for carrying everything from receipts, business cards, and 3×5 cards.

The company also offers special editions for lovers of gardening, wine, cats, dogs, babies, travel, and recipes — but the basic notebooks can be used for any or all of these things. There are also special books for architects and graphic designers, too.

The Moleskine company has its own web site, naturally, at http://www.moleskine.com/. There is an official company blog. The company also offers accessories ranging from special pencils and pens to binders, handbags, purses, backpacks and lots of other items much more expensive than the notebooks themselves. Like most consumer companies today, they are pretty heavily involved in social media.

Pricing, as you can imagine, varies depending on where you buy or order them. Some might consider them pricey for a small paper notebook (the pocket versions often list for $11-12, more for larger sizes).

There are actually a lot of alternatives competing with the Moleskine brand, with their own special paper and features — I’ve seen them range from $3 to $24 and more for the pocket size. See here to find alternatives to the Moleskine brand, but even people who use cheaper or fancier versions of these notebooks generally refer to the genre as Moleskines, rather than as a specific brand. For the purposes of future blog posts, we will use the term generically as well as specifically.

White Hat Moleskine Rangers vs. Black Hat Rapscallions

Moleskines also have their critics, including people who can’t understand why anybody would spend $12 for a small paper notebook. Moleskines have been satirized — the satirical blog Stuff White People Like devotes a post to White People and Moleskines. Some users who like to use fountain pens (also in a bit of a Renaissance these days) find Moleskine paper not to be ideal for certain pens and inks, and they search for and review other notebooks for paper quality.

Critics note that wire-bound notebooks are much cheaper than stitched binding, as are loose-leaf notebooks. Some say that they scan their pages into their computers and use a page-feed scanner to speed up the process. Moleskines don’t necessarily work well for this unless you don’t mind slicing up your notebooks.

In turn, Moleskine users say they like the paper quality, the design, the flexibility, and the tradition. They are chic (or snooty, depending on your viewpoint). Some advocates say that if they spend that much on a notebook, they are more likely to use it, pointing to a stack of barely used cheap notebooks. Others like the low-tech approach to creativity with no keyboard or complicated software to get in the way of writing or drawing.

As for wire-bound notebooks, the wires tend to bend out of shape and, if you keep them in a pocket, the ends can snag on clothes or body parts (ouch!). Loose-leaf notebooks are bulky and heavier and the pages tear out more easily. Stitched paper binding is more expensive, but retains it’s shape, doesn’t snag, weighs less, and is more permanent. It usually is made with higher quality paper, too.

If you must scan pages see if scanning on a flatbed scanner, or just photographing with a digital camera works as well (there are many apps for your smart phone or tablet to do just that).

The bottom line is, if you keep it handy and use it, it’s worth the price. When I first went to buy a Moleskine I walked into an office supply store and found a similar product on sale for a small fraction of the price, so I picked up a stack of them (being unemployed) and I’m still using them for note taking, recording ideas, working out blog ideas, writing rough drafts and outlines, drawing mind maps, and the occasional doodle. I started relearning how to write legibly at about the same time, so my handwriting has improved at the same time as my use of notebooking and journaling has increased. I sometimes transcribe notes onto my computer and/or smartphone, using a computer keyboard, or my Android phone’s Swype keyboard, or photograph my notes with my iPad’s camera to automatically send pages to my online Evernote notebook (which is an entirely different creature with its own Internet fans).

So, for the uninitiated, that is why there are enough people using Moleskines to create an actual online sub-culture. In future articles we’ll discuss how to become a better Moleskine Cowboy, learn ways to corral your notebook, break it in, and round up ways to incorporate your notebook and a pen to improve your life.

In the meantime, see our post on alternatives to the standard Moleskines here, order one online, or go to your favorite office supply or big box store to see what they have in stock.

Next: Taming the Wild Moleskine, Part 1

Photo and Art Credits

Black and white drawn clip art is from The American West in the Nineteenth Century,
compiled and written by John Grafton, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.

“Cowboys near Kennedy Post Office, Cherry County, Nebraska” 1900, by Solomon D. Butcher, from the Nebraska State Historical Society. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, DC http://loc.gov.

“Cowboy on Horse” from collection “The South Texas Border” of works by Robert Runyon (1881-1968), from The Center for American History and General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, DC http://loc.gov.

“Water Witch and Old Time Cowboy, Pie Town, New Mexico” [old cowboy profile] 1940, by Russell Lee (1903-1986) for the U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, DC http://loc.gov.

This article was originally published on the  original Frugal Guidance blog and  redesigned and rewritten for this post.

Frugal Guidance 2 - http://andybrandt531.com