In Praise of Moleskines

By Johnny Gamber

I am writing to praise what’s become — to my mind — the humble Moleskine. The brand seems to be flourishing these days. There are always more licensed editions to buy, more planner options, more colors, more accessories. There is even a Moleskine café, and I will marry whomever whisks me away there. While I feel like Civilians are as into Moleskines as ever, within the fancy stationery community (and especially the stationery blogger community), Moleskine can be a dirty word. I might even be guilty of writing them off, but — for me — it all started with a Moleskine.

Despite being a borderline Moleskine fetishist when I created Pencil Revolution in 2005, my usage really dropped off in 2010 — when Moleskine became a brand of stuff, not a line of notebooks. I was turned off and discovered other brands of notebooks and journals: Field Notes, Paper Blanks, Word., Write Notepads & Co., and Baron Fig. I’ve come back for Moleskine’s planners since 2013 though, and I always travel to New York, Boston, Philly, and Washington DC with the City Notebooks I bought for each metropolis in the late 2000s.

I haven’t put The Big M down entirely.

While on vacation in Boston/Cambridge last month, I had other pocket notebooks in my very large suitcase. But I walked around all day with just my Moleskine Voyageur in my bag (really a diaper bag) and a tiny green Volant in my pocket. It was the best notebook to have handy, walking around and taking the subway with three kids in tow. As an added bonus, it was the perfect size for storing my Charlie card and my hotel keycard.

We recorded an episode of Erasable a while back in which we explored “small m” moleskin style notebooks. I can’t bear to listen to myself ramble and check out that episode, but I don’t remember being particularly kind to the brand. Still, maybe a year before that, I saw the Moleskine Voyageur in a shop somewhere and felt pulled in. It stirred me, since I had a trip or two to take.

About a year and a half ago, Ana from The Well-Appointed Desk wrote a post about Moleskines (which I have re-read a few times) called “Reconsidering Moleskine.” In it, she writes:

“I think whatever notebook makes you want to make marks, write your story, save your memories, doodle, scrawl, or write your grocery list, don’t feel guilty about it. If you love a Moleskine, use it. If you prefer an Italian embossed leather notebook purchased on the Bridge of Sighs, then use that. The best notebook is the one you have with you, no matter which one you choose.”

There’s just something about a Moleskine that seems to capture my imagination, and Moleskines followed Space Pens in being what pushed me into exploring nicer stationery just after my first year of graduate school in 2001-2002. I was accustomed to composition books and either gel pens or Write Bros. pens. They worked for me all through my undergrad years and my first year of graduate school.

The first time I ever saw a Moleskine, I was about to leave on a multi-day Amtrak journey from Boston to Houston (via Chicago and Longview) in the summer of 2002. I wandered into a Rand McNally store near Quincy Market, and I saw a few Moleskines. I read the one in the store that was open, and I thought that the space to fill in one’s address and reward was charming. I had just purchased (and started) a new journal and did not take home a Moleskine that day. Being a graduate student did not permit me to hoard notebooks yet. But that night, I did write my name, address, and a promised reward inside the front cover of my non-M book, with my precious Space Pen.

I bought my first Moleskine in January 2003 at Bob Slate in Cambridge, and it was for someone else, as a birthday gift. I bought two more squared books that month to use in taking notes for my MA comprehensive exam on the history of philosophy. My exams were oral; I’m painfully introverted. So I needed to over-prepare. Filling these books with a large chunk of the history of Western philosophy was great fun, hard work, dream-instilling (I had dreams of Hume and Kant for weeks; I kid you not), and I still have them.* I bought my first personal use Moleskine in February 2003 at Bob Slate’s Porter Square location and dug right in as the responses to my PhD program applications were coming in, and I felt particularly up-rooted.

I kept on using Moleskines, starting my first planner in April 2003, which made me feel like “a sort of organized dandy.” I wrote at the time. We used a “Japanese” notebook as the guestbook at my wedding in October 2003. I used Kraft Cahiers for notes while I wrote my dissertation in 2006-2007. I kept on using them in AmeriCorps and my short time working in higher education before my kids were born.

Pencil Revolution owes its existence, in part, to Moleskines. In early 2004, the fantastic Moleskinerie brought together a lot of like-minded folks. I had toyed with keeping a few blogs, but it was Moleskinerie that really inspired me to keep a personal blog from 2004-2013. And in addition to inspiring me to start Pencil Revolution in July 2005, Moleskinerie’s kind and supportive editor plugged it right away, and there was an overnight audience to spur on the posts.

Back in the days when I worked outside of the home, pulling out a Moleskine at a meeting was something on which to connect. I worked at faculty development and community engagement, out of the Provost’s office of a large, urban, public university. My job was, largely, to connect people. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t contribute to forming collaborations between individuals with whom I’d connected over our well-thumbed Moleskine books. I knew a certain Associate Provost who seemed to have a new soft-cover Moleskine every week, and I wondered what he wrote in them and whether he had his assistant stock them for him.

And yet, even as Moleskine notebooks became so ubiquitous, there were still people who had never seen one. I knew folks who thought that thinking so much about a notebook (or buying it oneself, rather than raiding the department supply cabinet) was the sign of a troubled mind. An AmeriCorps supervisor I knew was surprised that I wrote in mine; she just carried hers in her cavernous bag. Moleskines became a gift to give literary-minded friends, and I was ecstatic each time someone used one that I gave them and enjoyed it.

The issue I mainly find with Moleskines is the required suspended disbelief. They are touted as almost magical. They are just Chinese-made, Italian-designed, French-inspired collections of paper, thread, ribbon, plastic covers, and glue. But the form factor; the ease of carrying them; how they open so nicely on a table but how you can use them standing up; the cream pages and light grey lines; the pocket; the thing which says, “This is a serious utilitarian notebook; fill it up with good stuff!” — these make me want to Write, not just take notes or make lists. The sublimated ambition to try my hand at Writing that led me to study philosophy shows itself when I pick up a Moleskine. I know that the historical claims they used to make were bunk, and I kind of always knew that. But a Moleskine, das Ding an sich, draws me to it. And — in fancy stationery circles, where paper is expected to be fountain pen-friendly or come in a book made in a vintage factory in the Midwest — I sometimes feel the need to justify my affection for Moleskines.

They still fill my home. My daughter was given one with honeycombs on it by a very kind friend of ours, and she filled it up quickly, until it was literally ready to burst with all the ink and graphite and heart she put into it. I totally have both Harry Potter editions. I am using an 18-month planner right now, since I am in the position to need a planner again. I have a pocket black lined book I’ve written a page or two in, so that if I find myself needing or wanting a Moleskine, I’ve got one broken in and ready to go. I doubt I’ll ever let go of this form factor, not as long as these little books still capture my imagination

*Lest someone rag on ballpoint pens, I used a drying-out blue Space Pen refill and then USA-made Write Bros pens to fill these books. The ink and the paper are fine.

Johnny Gamber is a father of three children and one philosophy dissertation who lives and writes in Baltimore. Founder and editor of the web’s first pencil blog, Pencil Revolution, he is also one third of The Erasable Podcast. Johnny can often be found at Baltimore area coffeeshops and bakeries looking at pencils on Instagram.