Being social animals, human beings tend to allow their better judgement to be stampeded by the crowd’s impulses. This applies not only to the followers of trends, but their critics: the bigger the icon, the bigger the kudos accorded those who accomplish its takedown.This is only aided by the ephemeral nature of popularity: both sides to laud–or criticise–things based on their aura rather than the true nature of the thing itself.
A recent example of this is the Moleskine notebook. Produced by the Italian company Modo e Modo, Moleskines are essentially copies of a French design. Their advertising copy links them to a number of literary and artistic luminaries: Hemingway, Chatwin, Picasso. Since all of these people are dead, they can’t complain that they never, in fact, used the notebooks in question, although they may well have used very similar ones (Chatwin certainly did; his were purchased from a Parisian stationer, until the supplier closed down in 1986).
This is really where the trouble starts. Coupled with their good looks (the Moleskine is a very attractive notebook), the cachet of the artists and writers essentially providing endorsements for them gave Moleskine notebooks the jumpstart they needed. It’s important to note that the kind of person who will spend time looking for the perfect notebook is generally the classic "early adopter" so beloved of computer technology companies, and I suspect they (we) are perhaps more vulnerable to the lure of the Moleskine’s whispered promises."Buy me," it seems to say, "and you too can be inspired to write like Hemingway."
Marketing does not fool us, exactly; it hands us the lines
we feed ourselves. Seduction is something we allow to happen, and investing objects
with mysterious power is an old trap. We want to believe that possessing these
items is what will give us power, or wealth, or inspiration; we want to deny
that ‘genius’ is a label we apply to those who are both supremely gifted and
work harder than anyone else. Olympic athletes have a genetic makeup that makes
them suited for their chosen sport, but this is at best a starting point;
potential will always go unfulfilled unless it is accompanied by a daily grind of
back-breaking labour. Nobody wants to hear this; it’s not a cheering message.
The idea that we simply lack some talisman, owned by those whose powers we aspire
to possess, is a far more attractive one.
The story so far: early adopters are drawn in by a combination of factors, one
of which is the mystique evoked by Modo e Modo’s marketing copy; the cult of
the Moleskine grows, and they begin to crop up in a multitude of stationery,
art and book shops, helped along by distribution agreements with several major
chain bookstores (Barnes and Noble, Waterstone’s). Enter the critics, with the
message that Moleskine fans are clearly being taken for the proverbial ride, Hemingway
and Chatwin never bought Modo e Modo products, and that the talismanic
qualities that are (implicitly or explicitly) being appealed to do not, in fact, exist.
Several lines of argument appear in response to such sceptical claims; I do not
claim any of them as my own, merely hoping to summarise the main position.
f1) They’re just good notebooks, better than anything else on the market; yes, you pay a premium for them, but it’s worth it to have the
f2) The talismanic qualities do exist; I write more and better in my Moleskine
than I did before. Of course, the Moleskine only serves to evoke this response
in me–it isn’t some kind of immaterial power residing in the notebook
itself–but if the effect is real, surely the end result is the same.
f3) I just like them, it’s a personal aesthetic preference. I don’t deny the
marketing argument, but you have no basis for criticism as far as subjective
There isn’t much consensus on f1; some think that there are better notebooks, or
cheaper notebooks that are just as good. Many don’t. Personally I haven’t found
any that are both as well made and suit my personal needs as perfectly, and I
suspect many of those needs generalise well. Briefly, the pocket Moleskines are compact, with a high page
count for their size, and good paper (albeit with well-documented feathering
and bleed issues; you need to choose your pen carefully). They are stitched and
bound in oilskin-covered card, which makes them resilient. Lastly, they have several nice touches that make
them stand out from the crowd. The built-in bookmark and elastic snap that
keeps it closed while not in use are of obvious utility; the back pocket grows
on one. I use mine to carry library photocopier cards and Post-it notes.
The second argument is trickier. Merlin Mann calls the Moleskine a MacGuffin,
which seems to have a certain truth to it. However, speaking of the Moleskine
in these terms does it something of a disservice, and does not tell the whole
story by any means. On the one hand, it may draw out certain good behaviours in
some people: writing more, writing better. The Moleskine, when evoking these
tendencies, helps define an ideal we aspire to (it may do this by instantiating
a certain ideal itself, that of the ideal notebook, or at least coming closer
than other notebooks).
As portentous as this sounds, it is only one side of the truth; the downside is
that a Moleskine can inhibit as much as inspire. By declaring this ideal of
good writing, it poses a challenge–or an obstacle. If one is constantly
second-guessing oneself, worrying about whether what one is writing is in some way ‘worthy’ of being written down in a
Moleskine, then it is that much harder to write anything. The loudest voices
may be of those trumpeting their new muse, but it may simply be that those who
find the Moleskine a mental burden do not exist; perhaps they are ashamed of
their failings, or simply don’t recognise the syndrome.
Having suffered from this problem myself, I suspect that which side of the fence
one falls on is due to temperament, and how one views one’s writing. When I
initially purchased a Moleskine, several years ago, I wrote fairly prolifically
about a story I was trying to write, but I didn’t get much of the story itself
written. Entering a period of greater depression, my doubts assailed me with
more vigour, and my writing petered out. Whenever I did try to write, I had to
use simple sheets of lined paper; if I sat down with my Moleskine, I would
stare at the empty page, trying to think of something worthwhile to write. As
my condition improved, I began writing more often in the Moleskine, and now I write in it at least every couple of days. Many of the posts on this
blog began life as musings in my Moleskine.
There is a third point, of course, which is that whatever the Moleskine is, it
is not simply a talismanic object. It is, in fact, a notebook–and rather a good
one at that. In my initial paragraph I warned against the seductive nature of
the aura surrounding a fashionable object, and here we can see that warning
realised. The fan claims that the Moleskine helps them write more, and better;
the critic responds that in many cases, using a Moleskine may actually hinder
the writing process. All this does is polarise the debate: what we should be doing is looking at how these claims really relate to an individual
choice (that is to say, whether or not they buy one, if they’re thinking about
doing so). I don’t mean to claim that a given transaction (or the set of all
such transactions) is the only thing that gives this argument meaning, but it
is certainly an important nexus of it.
What do I mean by this? Well, to begin with, the decision puts these arguments
in a context, relates them to behaviour, and generally provides some
much-needed perspective. The question of how an individual’s writing will be
affected by using a Moleskine is an individual one: it depends on their
circumstances, their nature. Moreover, there are practical questions: is this
the right kind of notebook for me? What does it do better than the rest? Is the
price worth it? These issues depend on the individual, on the context in which
the questions are asked, not on spurious normative claims. The hard work of
answering a question is done once the terms of the question and the context in
which it is being asked are defined closely enough.
These questions of individual circumstance bring us to the third argument.
Essentially, it grows from a confusion about subjectivity: the word
‘subjective’ is used as a shorthand to mean "circumstances specific to
me". When someone says that buying a Moleskine is "A personal preference", or "A subjective judgment", what they
really mean is "It suits my needs, but not necessarily yours." This
isn’t what it really means for something to be subjective: the circumstances on
which the choice is based are in fact objective facts; if you were in their
position, you would make a different choice. There probably is an element of
subjective aesthetic appreciation, but I think that if it exists (this is a
point of philosophical contention) its influence is overrated.
I have several Moleskines in current operation: a sketchbook, some Cahiers for ultimate portability and throwaway scribbles, and a lined notebook
in which I write… well, pretty much whatever I feel like. A couple of months
ago I wrote the following in it:
"Decided that too much sanctity is stifling me. Need to loosen up.
Consequently, this notebook will loosen up—starting with some Post-it artwork.
The Moleskine crazy is apparently, just like the iPod, big. Now I’m just one of
the crowd. Still, nice to be an early adopter for once, even if I haven’t
written in it as much as I might (I put this down to the aforementioned desire
not to violate such a beautiful notebook with incessant and unremarkable
Post-its are another good way of avoiding this problem; I draw on them, badly,
then stick the good ones in the Moleskine. However, I’ve decided it’s high time
I did more of it—so I bought a Moleskine Sketchbook. We’ll see how it goes.
Benedict Eastaugh: "I’m a 22-year old Philosophy student and web designer, and I’ve been
doing design work since 2001 or so. My experience extends from large
community portals to research group sites, and encompasses a lot of
work for small businesses and self-employed individuals.
Image: ome punkster