500 Years of da Vinci’s Notebooks

Thursday marked the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. In the chaos of the week it was lost to me, which is too bad because I meant to write about it then. It first came to my attention in October 2017 as I read Walter Isaacson’s magnificent biography of da Vinci. I remember thinking then that I have to make a mental note that the 500th anniversary of his death was mere year and a half away. How time flies!

It was brought back to my attention yesterday morning when I read the cover story in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic, “Leonardo’s Enduring Brilliance” by Claudia Kalb. Toward the end of the article, it noted da Vinci’s death on May 2, 1519.

There are many impressive things about da Vinci, not the least of which was his curiosity about the world around him. But what has impressed me most about da Vinci, the more I learn of him, is the prolific manner in which he recorded his curiosity in his notebooks, and the mind-boggling fact that over 7,000 pages of those notebooks have survived the five centuries for us to read and study today.

Nothing has made a more profound impression upon me than this. In a world where so much of what we do is captured in a digital medium, paper still proves to be among the most reliable storage systems ever created. I’d been keeping Field Notes notebooks in my pockets for several years before reading the da Vinci biography. Afterward, I moved my journals back to paper form, so impressed was I with the sheer durability and reliability of the medium.

In the year and a half since, I haven’t changed my mind. I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, and my journals are still captured in large Moleskine notebooks, four of which I have filled up in 18 months. I don’t know that these notebooks will last 500 years, but I suspect they will outlive this blog, for instance.

There are trade-offs, of course. The paper journals are more difficult to search, but spending some time indexing them helps with that. They are not “always available” the way cloud-based data is. If I am traveling, I have my current journal with me, but not the past volumes, so if I need to look something up, it has to wait until I get home. On the other hand, I like the simplicity of pen, ink, and paper. I paste in a lot of printed photos so that I get a low-tech multimedia experience. And being a low-tech solution, the journals don’t require a computer, power source, or anything else to maintain.

Perhaps because so much of what I do these days is on a computer, these notebooks offer a reprieve from that. It’s nice to sit down at the end of the day, or first thing in the morning, and write in them, longhand. There is, it seems to me, far less distance between me and other diarists I admire when I am scribbling in these books. I could be in the same room as Isaac Asimov, or John Adams, or even Leonardo da Vinci, each of us scribbling away on paper.

One comment

  1. When I think about writing more in paper notebooks, my planned solution for paper notebooks’ limitations (backups, search, availability) is typically capturing entries into something like Evernote with my phone.

    At least that way, they become more portable, accessible, and I can back them up, more or less.


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