In praise of notebooks

Its not even the end of term and I’ve filled just about every page of this year’s Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Usually its not until May or June that I’m scrambling to find a series of blank pages to work in but this year its not even April and most pages look like this:

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Ok, its a wall of words. Its old-school, its archaic, its not searchable, minimal tagging function, and even to get these images of the notebook onto this blog I had to employ my phone’s camera, email the pictures to myself, and then upload them to this blog. So why use such an old format? Why insist on actually “writing”, with a pen no less, in a book!?!? To quote “The Plague”…

This is the same kind of reception you get at Digital Humanities conferences by the way — when you’re furiously scribbling notes in ye olde notebooke and obviously not live-tweeting the conference proceedings. People worry: is this luddite in the back of the room about to smash my Macbook!?!?

Yet there’s something that I just love about writing in these notebooks and I think it helps my creative process in a way that goes beyond fetishizing some kind of creative process or intellectual activity. I really find that working in this medium of pen and paper allows my mind to wander and allows me to come up with unlikely and unusual links between ideas that I might not otherwise make on an iPad or computer (no, the irony of writing this in a blog is not totally lost on me). I’ve always found that even writing with a tool like MS Word or a blog editor constricts your ideas in a way that paper doesn’t.

Perhaps its the ability to not complete a thought — writing something down allows for more of a trailing off – the lack of completion of an idea can be OK. Writing electronically, it seems to me, calls for ideas to be logically organized by paragraph, by sentence structure. Of course in some forums and for some tasks this is important, but for generally thinking though a problem, lack of closure isn’t necessarily bad.

I also just like the lack of distraction that I have when I’m working in a notebook. The compulsion to check hockey scores or email is far less pervasive when the laptop or tablet isn’t open. We live in work environments and social worlds that privilege multitasking and paying half-attention to the things we do so its a nice thing to be able to focus on one thing with your full attention.

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I must admit I was tempted by the new Moleskine-Evernote notebook that apparently somehow pairs your written world with your text world. It seems like it basically just lets you take a picture of the pages and then stores them in your Evernote cloud. A good idea I think but I’m not convinced. For one thing, I tend to treat the notebook as the sandbox and the really good ideas get typed up and refined on the computer. For another, I’ve always found Leuchtturm1917 better than Moleskine — it has numbered pages and a table of contents at the beginning. Plus a cool German name.

Until Leuchtturm comes out with a good app that instantly highlights my best ideas, combines them with other ideas in faraway parts of the notebook and then synthesizes them into a complete article concept ready for publication, I’ll just stick to the notebook.

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