16 April 2012

Moleskine "hacks" highlight a shortcoming of bound notebooks

While I may be a techno-geek, and proud of it, there's still something both seductive and beneficial about writing the old-fashioned way, with pen on paper.  And as far as that goes, the gold standard in notebooks is the venerable Moleskine.  Even more impressive, I think, than the notebooks themselves is the gargantuan community of Moleskine hackers; people who tweak, twist, cut, add to, remove from, and reinvent their notebooks for their own purposes.  But I think many Moleskine hacks actually underscore an intrinsic shortcoming of the bound notebook.

(Full disclosure: while I have used my fair share of Moleskine notebooks, and have several new ones waiting in the wings, I find myself these days being more drawn to Leuchtturm1917 notebooks.  This notwithstanding, this post applies equally well to all notebooks.)

A whole gaggle of Moleskine hacks can be found on Flickr and via Google.  If you take the time to look through them and sort through the duplicates and variations-on-a-theme, you'll start to see some trends.

  • Paginating these notebooks appears quite de rigeur.  (I note one reason I currently prefer Leuchtturm1917 is that they're pre-paginated and even have an index page at the front that you can use to create a table of contents.)
  • Forward and backward referencing is very common.  Since you can't rearrange pages in a bound book, many people need a way to relate pages that may be, in the book, quite far from one another topologically, maybe even in different books.  This is often done by numbering both the book and the page and then using double-number scheme like 3.45 to indicate page 45 in book 3.
  • Sectioning. Many Moleskine hacks involve adding tabs, post-its, or some other, usually coloured, marker to indicate the start of a section of a notebook.  This is particularly popular among those who use their notebooks to implement GTD or a related method.  This can cause people some grief as the notebooks, not having been designed for tabs, end up looking a bit messy; the tabs stick out past the cover and can become worn and frayed.  Some clever people have found ways of actually cutting the pages themselves - laborious as that is to do well - to create sections without having bits and pieces sticking out beyond the notebook's cover.  I note that Moleskine does produce one book that has cut-in tabs, the Info Book, but it only comes with lined pages.  And for those of us who prefer quad or blank pages, the lines are a royal pain.
  • Post-its for temporary notes.  I love post-its; they're infinitely flexible.  And there's something so significant and weighty about Moleskine notebooks that one is often loathe to just use them as scratch pads.  So many users add post-its to their Moleskine, for the sake of being able to quickly scribble things down, knowing that the post-its can be removed and recycled once that info has outlived its usefulness.  This leaves the notebook's pages clean for more "important" things.
  • The Moleskine as wallet.  While Moleskines and other high-end notebooks invariably come with a pocket inside the back cover for storing receipts, cards, etc., many users augment their notebooks with a variety of extra pockets - some literally turn their pocket-sized notebooks into full-blown wallets.
  • Pen loops.  Many notebook users want to be sure that they always have a good pen near their notebook.  The easiest way to do this is to have a loop on the notebook for holding one.  However, Moleskines don't have pen loops.  I personally buy adhesive pen loops from Leuchtturm1917; they'll work on anything.  Others use duct tape, elastic cloth, rubber bands, and fabrics to create pen loops.
There's plenty of other popular hacks for bound notebooks, but these are the ones I've noticed most often.

Here's my observation: most if not all of these hacks are already handled by another type of notebook - a ringed binder - and it can be done quicker and with less effort than any of these hacks.

Pagination can be done in a binder just as easily as in a bound notebook, but it's not really necessary.  The principal reason for paginating things is to be able to refer to information items that's cognitively close but topologically far.  With a binder, you can rearrange the pages so that topological distance is not an issue - thus, no need for pagination.

A similar argument can be made for forward and backward referencing.

Sectioning is rarely an issue with a binder because the binders are usually large enough to accommodate tabbed dividers.  And since you can add paper to any section in a binder, you no longer have the problem of filling one section of a bound book but leaving other sections only partly filled - and therefore partly wasted.

Post-its work just as well in a binder as in a bound notebook, but aren't as necessary.  Again, since a binder can be refilled at whim, it's not such a problem to use it for scratch notes.  Indeed, I have two kinds of paper in my binder: some good paper for important notes, and some cheap paper for scratch notes.  When I'm done with the scratch paper, I just tear it out of the binder and toss it into the blue bin.

Binders often come with an assortment of pockets in them.  My "senior" size Succes binder is a little larger and thicker than a pocket Moleskine, but has six pockets for business and credit cards, and two larger pockets for money or receipts.  And you can by extra card pockets too.  So binders are much closer to being usable wallets than are bound notebooks.

Finally, most ring binders come with pen loops.

So, to sum up: the most popular Moleskine hacks appear to address shortcomings that they do not share with ringed binders.  It would seem that users of bound notebooks are just trying to reinvent the binder, just without the rings.

The only serious and quantifiable measure in which bound notebooks like Moleskines beat binders is in robustness.  A Moleskine can stand far more abuse than a binder.

The other way in which bound notebooks beat binders is only qualitative, but still matters: prestige.  There's something special about a good bound notebook, like a Moleskine or a Leuchtturm1917, that many people just don't "feel" about binders.  In many ways, that's just as important - if you really want to use something, you'll use it better and more often than if you have to force yourself.

In the end, of course, all these books are just tools.  They're means to an end.  Whichever one gets you there best is the one you should use.

But still, if you're a big Moleskine hacker, you might want to ask yourself: are you a closet binder-user?

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