Note-taking and Myth-making

I have two notebooks with me on this journey. One is slim and black and clamps its own pages shut with an elastic belt. Attached to the spine is a woven cloth bookmark and in the back is an elegantly engineered pocket for loose slips of paper; included here is a history of the famous little black book to which I will return presently. The other – the one into which I am entering these words – is slightly bulkier, is encased in translucent plastic and comes with its own inkless pen which slots invisibly into its body.


The two items which have accompanied me to Paris are in some ways both small icons of an age: the Moleskine ruled notebook and the Handspring Visor, a handheld computer which I use to expand my brain’s rather limited memory capacity. I’m in France’s capital for a day or so, mostly waiting for trains to take me elsewhere, and this is rather fitting since Henri Matisse was apparently also a fan of the Moleskine notebook. Heaven knows what he used it for; this is of course the territory of myth-making, so one might imagine our friend Henri using the leaves of his own to sketch down a few ideas for ‘Bathers by a River’. But who knows, I’ve never seen his notebooks. It’s tempting to believe that every gesture of a great artist is a direct expression of genius; every picked nostril, every rolled-up and lazily ejected ball of snot an artistic statement of incomparable significance. Matisse probably excreted better art before breakfast than most will produce in a lifetime, but I’m more inclined to believe that he used his own Moleskine to write shopping lists with: "Buy milk, bread, cheese, tube of ultramarine blue".

The Moleskine’s illustrious history isn’t just reserved for French impressionist painters or the Parisian avant-garde; the writer and traveler Bruce Chatwin also helped to make them famous and was, due to their scarcity, forced in 1986 to buy one hundred of them before leaving for Australia. The last producers of the Moleskines were a family business in Tours, France, but thankfully they are now being produced once more by ‘Modo & Modo’ in Italy.

Sceptical of all such great-artist myths is "Lisa."  Speaking with her some time ago in her beautiful, stripped-down stationary store, she notes that all the famous people who supposedly used Moleskines are conveniently dead now, and are in no real position to start any legal wranglings with Modo & Modo about their marketing strategy.

Without the weighty history, and currently without the myth is the company ‘PalmOne’ (formerly ‘Palm Computing’ and ‘Handspring Inc.’) who made the Visor range of handheld computers. Despite not posessing the patina of nobility which the Moleskine has aquired, the Visor and it’s growing family of newer handhelds is arguably on the way to becoming an object of similar importance. Indeed, with such fierce worldwide marketing, a myth helping sales along is so much as a drop in the ocean. The Visor’s strength lies in its simplicity of operation and in its potential flexibility. A single press of a button is enough to turn it on and simultaniously take me to ‘today’ in a calender program. Press another button and I call up all of my telephone numbers. With another program I can sketch into it, with another I can pull up a database of the Paris Metro. At the back there is a Game Boy-like expansion slot into which I am able to slot an MP3 player, or a phone, or a camera, presuming that I have the money left to afford one more little translucent plastic luxury in my life. Most curious however is the mode of text entry: I write the letters directly on to a designated zone of the display with the stylus. In contrast to other palm-top computers I don’t have to train it to learn my own spikey and erratic hand; rather I must learn its own internally defined alphabet, which, practically enough, closely resembles the roman alphabet, with the exception of maybe the letter ‘k’ which resembles a fish.

It is perhaps this immediacy and ease of use which I am grasping at here; this is what makes the Visor a serious competitor to a note book and a pen. Of course, I am not trying to make any judgements here, one is not automatically better than the other: I am equally at home with the digital as I am with the analogue, and one should recognise the advantages and disadvantages of both. My Moleskine has no back-up function, and in my Handspring I can’t combine text and sketch-entries. So it’s just a question of image. Where is it better to open my Moleskine or to whip out the Visor to make a few notes? Certainly a consideration for anyone hoping to take the place of Matisse in the digital age. So my request is this: will the Bruce Chatwin of the handheld generation please stand up…

Further information:

Mulackstrasse 14, 10119 Berlin – Mitte

Modo & Modo, makers of the Moleskine notebook:


Article and photograph originally appeared in the German and English language netzine ‘Humbug Humbug’ in 2001.
© 2001, 2004 Ian Warner

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