Mod Notebook Review

by Patrick Rhone

Mod Notebook

Let’s get the basic facts as they stand today out of the way first: The Mod Notebook is a paper notebook that, for the price of purchase, comes with a pre-paid envelope and special code in back that allows one to send it in, have it scanned and made available “in the cloud” — with the option to either have the notebook itself sent back to you or recycled (i.e. not sent back to you).

The reason it is important to start there is that there is a lot of mis-information, confusion, and misconceptions surrounding this product. Most of it of the company’s own making. I won’t go into great detail here. It is an interesting story though — one worth reading. It’s an example of how a good idea can be so poorly thought through, launched, and communicated that — even though you address and fix nearly every mistake — it may just be too late. Most people go on believing what they heard the first time — that you subscribe to get this notebook, fill it up with weeks/months/years of stuff, send it off for scanning to get it “in the cloud”, and never see it again.

The company goes to great lengths to shed a good light on where they were and where they are now (while kind of glossing over what a complete mess they made of a product launch) in these two posts:

So, with that out of the way, I really want to get to the heart of what truly matters to me and the only thing I can evaluate right now: How does it work as a notebook?

Mod Notebook 2

Basically, it’s OK. It’s not great. It’s not terrible either. What I’m about to say below might make it seem terrible, but I have used worse. I’ve also have had (and still have) lots of way better notebooks too. This is on the high end of the low end.

If one were to ask me how it feels I would say it feels like a better than average knock-off of a Moleskine (with my personal benchmark of Moleskine being a “good enough” notebook). This is not something that screams quality or even does a great job of faking it. I had to press in the center of the pages to get it to lie open flat. Though it is stitched bound it felt glued. The cover feels like the stuff three ring binders were made from when I was a kid. Even the bookmark ribbon feels like average dime-store ribbon. The elastic closure will probably wear out, break down, and lose elasticity as fast as all elastic generally does — if not faster.

The paper is OK, if a little scratchy. I drafted this using a Lamy Studio with an EF nib that writes perfectly smooth on really good paper. It was not as smooth on this paper. But, hey, some might like a bit of tooth. No bleed through though (I bought the blank/unlined version). So, that’s a plus.

The size is OK. They claim it is the same dimensions as the iPad. It’s close but not quite. Close enough I guess…

Overall, I feel just so very “meh” about it. And, maybe that is OK for some. I mean, who would want to take a really nice notebook that they have poured their life into and stick it in the mail to people they don’t even know with the promise they will have it scanned and returned safely? Maybe you want a “meh” notebook for that. But, here’s the rub…

It’s $25.00 (!).

OK, I get that they are doing a fair bit with that $25.00. You get the (meh) notebook. You get the prepaid shipping. You get the scanning and cloud app that syncs with Evernote, OneNote, and Dropbox. You even get it returned if you want it. But, at the end of the day, I’ve spent $25.00 and received a notebook that feels like a $5.00 (and I’m being generous) notebook.

Now, I’ve only just started it so I have no idea how well the other aspects of this product work. The digitization, app, and all of the rest may be worth the remaining $20.00 to some folks out there.

In fact, I would likely be all in on the idea if they offered just the service/app part for any notebook you already owned or preferred to use. Say, for instance, if for that price you could print off a pre-paid shipping label, send them any notebook up to a certain size, they scanned it and made it available in their app, and then sent it back to you. That, I might buy.

In all, I would only recommend this to a very specific person. Someone who cares less about the quality of the notebook and more about the service, app, and the possibilities that might provide. Because, that is what you are really paying for here. If you are looking for a great notebook that also has the rest of that stuff attached to it, well, you’ll have to keep waiting (or hope they read this and adopt the free good idea I just gave them above).

A Look Inside Gramercy Typewriter Co.

I came across this interview with Paul Schweitzer, owner of Gramercy Typewriter Company, from 2012. Paul sold me my Smith-Corona last year. His shop is the size of a postage stamp, but so much history has been squeezed in there over the last several decades and I’ve been waiting until I can afford to go back and buy an old Underwood or Royal.

And be sure to read WNYC’s interview with Paul from 2011.

The Importance of Writing by Hand

The Importance of Writing by Hand

Should I lose all my important writing, I’d prefer being able to say it died in the flames of an unquenchable fire, or the merciless gusts of a tornado, or rapids of river water beating down the front door during a flash flood. If the writing matters at all to me, it deserves something a little better than, “I forgot to press Ctrl-S.”

J.D.’s wonderful companion piece to his Penmanship guest post here.

Penmanship for the Heavy Handed

by J. D. Bentley

Before this week, my penmanship had stayed slow, stagnant and terrible for the entire two decades I’ve known how to write. I never thought to improve it. I never even thought it could be improved. I figured I was predetermined to have terrible handwriting.

First of all, around the age of ten I developed a love for computers that had me trading pen and paper for keyboard and mouse whenever possible. That I could type quicker than I wrote and that it was always legible gave me all the reason I needed to abandon handwriting altogether.

On top of that, I’m a man. All but a few of us are destined to have shitty penmanship, I thought, and I certainly wasn’t the exception. I’ve heard that the quality difference between female handwriting and male handwriting can be accounted for by girls having more finely tuned motor skills at the age handwriting is taught. I don’t know if that’s true, but a quick glance at my unevolved chicken scratch seems to confirm it.

The older I get, though, the less appealing the computer is. As the digital world gets bigger, more social, more crowded, I have gotten far less interested. I use the machine mainly to write in Ulysses, read a few of my favorite writers and manage my homestead. But back in September, my hard drive bit the dust and I was left computerless for nearly three weeks. In that time, as a paper notebook became more appealing than ever, I began to wonder for the first time in my life whether or not I could make my handwriting not only more beautiful, but also more natural and effortless.

My handwriting is heavy, clumsy, and (as you might expect) cramped. Every stroke carries so much weight and is made with such incredible deliberation that it somehow looks completely faithful to the intended shape and also horribly deformed. When you write as I do, there’s only so much time you can handle it. The muscles in my hand get tighter and more sore so that the already ugly words I manage to spit out of my pen get even uglier and less legible.

I was recently taking handwritten notes for a great book I’m reading—The King’s County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining–and I could barely make it thirty minutes. There was plenty to write, and I was slow and tense enough to make it all a miserable chore. But these were notes I desperately wanted to take, and not on the computer. They had to be taken and they had to be in a physical notebook. This was around the time I first heard about The Cramped. This site and my need spurred me to attempt to fix my handwriting. It could be faster and more practical, if not more beautiful.

After hours of writing and rewriting the same few phrases, testing different styles for each character, different techniques for the strokes, and a variety of other things, I think my handwriting is fixed. I happen to think it’s much prettier now than ever. I might even go so far as to say that with a little more polish it will be the exact handwriting I’ve always wanted.

before-and-after-handwriting

But whether or not you agree with my aesthetic sensibilities, this new handwriting is fast, painless and legible, which is all that really matters to me.

Here are a few of the ways I improved it:

Let Loose of the Pen

I’ve always recognized my terrible penmanship, which is why I’ve always grasped the pen way too tight. I think it was a subconscious attempt to form better shapes, but it only makes it worse. First, because the best handwriting is light, free flowing and effortless. Second, because it destroys your hand. You exert so much effort just holding the damn thing that after a while you abandon it for a keyboard.

Shapes are better when they just happen, not when you try hard to make them happen.

Slant It

The letters in my writing were always straight up and down. I always hated them. It made it feel boxy and stiff. One of the features of good handwriting, in my opinion, is that it looks like the writer is hurriedly dragging a line across the page, whether it wants to go or not. This results in a bit of a slant to the letters. They bend just a bit into the direction of the writing.

Open It Up

If you think cramped handwriting is ugly and impractical, then simply stop doing it. Start making letters a little bigger and increasing the space between them. Your hand will hurt less and it will be more legible.

Change Your Grip

Growing up, I recalled that the best handwriters I knew held their pencils funny. They would bend their wrists at a 90-degree angle so that they ended up writing from above rather than hovering over. So, I tried it and it worked. It doesn’t feel natural yet and getting used to it slows me down a bit, but I like what it does for my handwriting.

Conclusion

As with all things, the most important way to improve is to practice. For people so steeped in the digital, like myself, just showing up might prove to be the toughest part when you’ve got that nice shiny keyboard to bang away at. But the more I write by hand, the more I enjoy it. The more I write, the more often I surprise myself by forming lines that are nearly beautiful, which makes me want to write all the more.

In the end, handwriting is becoming more than just practical. It is actionable poetry. It is meditation. And for the first time ever, I like it.

J.D. Bentley writes at jdbentley.com on the topics of tradition, self-reliance, and the strenuous life. Join his mailing list to receive your free daily shot of the good stuff.

Phone Box Libraries | The Hickensian

Phone Box Libraries | The Hickensian

On a ride this weekend I finally got to see one of the fabled Phone Box Libraries. Classic, but now obsolete, red phone boxes are being converted into small independent libraries for communities lacking in a such a facility. In this case of this one in Gawcott, Buckinghamshire, it’s a book swap.

Lovely reuse. As an aside, just about every other block where I live in Saint Paul, MN has a Little Free Library. My family avails ourselves of this convenience all the time. It’s a great way to discover new books and to share ones you no longer need with others.

Starting a “Special” Journal – This One is a Little Sappy… — The Clicky Post

Starting a “Special” Journal – This One is a Little Sappy… — The Clicky Post

Instead of feeling the need to go to the store, pick out a card that someone else wrote, and then buy the card, they choose to write a special message to one another in the journal.  This way, these thoughts are kept together in a special place for them to reread and refer back to.  Like any journal, it is also a history of where their relationship was at various points in their lives.  They also use the journal as a place to write random notes to one another outside of holidays or special occasions.

Not sappy at all. Friggin’ brilliant. A wonderful idea and replacement for occasion cards that are often fleeting. I proposed this idea to my wife and she immediately was on board with this idea. Probably a good thing since we got each other the exact same card this past Valentines Day.

The Fountain of Ink – The Thinking Man

The Fountain of Ink – The Thinking Man.

I’ve asked myself why I’ve been using only fountain pens for almost twenty years – A throwback to simpler times? nostalgia? grace? charm? class? style? All of them, I guess – it’s a heady combination of all of them, that turned me into a dedicated fountain penman. There’s just something about a nib with its wide and narrow strokes giving individualty to what is written and read which we just don’t get with anything else.

What We Use | The Cramped

What We Use | The Cramped.

Another new page added to the site — What We Use. This is where we will catalog (with brief reviews) what tools we, the site contributors, are currently using. This is one you should check out from time to time as we will update and change it as the tools change.

Only Patrick’s are there for now. Harry’s should be coming soon Harry’s are up there now.

Thinking slowly – Matt Gemmell

Thinking slowly – Matt Gemmell

These older, simpler tools, with all of their baggage and inefficiencies, compel us to front-load the thinking process. They necessitate a certain concentration and cognitive abstraction. They force us to measure twice. Error-correction becomes a vaguely burdensome eventuality, as it should be, rather than an omnipresent part of the creative process. The slower pace of authorship throttles the hands, allowing the mind some extra breathing room and thus more effective oversight.

A characteristically lovely post from Matt. It echoes a lot of why I choose to use analog writing tools these days. Their very nature forces me to be mindful and measured in my craft.

Review — Clairefontaine Triomphe Stationery Paper

by Patrick Rhone

Clairefontaine Triomphe

I’ve been on the hunt for a while for some great stationery paper to use for my increasingly regular correspondence. Reader and longtime Internet pal Joe Lebo recently sent me a sheet of Clairefontaine Triomphe paper to try out.

My main requirements for such paper is that it be smooth, take fountain pen ink well, and have a certain air of “this matters” to it. I think the Triomphe hits all of these notes. It is beautiful paper — both to use and receive. The pad also comes with a lined guide sheet to help you keep your writing straight. It’s not cheap at $5.00 for a pad of 50 sheets. But, then again, if cheep is what you want then just use a legal pad. Good tools are rarely inexpensive.

If I had any quibble at all it would be that the paper is only available in bright white. I would love it if there was a cream option. My old, tired, eyes would find it easier to read.

Goulet Pens offers it in two sizes (A4 and A5) and also has matching envelopes on offer. I’ll be ordering some up today.

This post was first drafted on a sheet of Clairefontaine Triomphe stationery paper using a Lamy Studio (Black) with an EF nib and Pilot Iroshizuku Kon-Peki ink. A scan of the draft is available for download (PDF).