Tag: notebooks

When A Notebook Falls Apart

Recently I wrote about how I like my notebooks battered and ink-stained. I really do. But sometimes, a notebook can get so battered that it begins to fall apart. We spent the long Labor Day weekend at the beach, and while there, the current Field Notes notebook I carried began to come apart at the seams. Below you can see where the cover started to split from the rest of the notebook.

What happens when a notebook comes apart like this? What do I do? It depends on how much of the notebook I have filled. If the notebook still has a lot of blank pages in it, I will repair the notebook with some Scotch tape and continue to use it. If, however, there are only a few blank pages left, I do what any regular notebook user would do, I retire the current notebook and pull out the backup.

I always carry a backup notebook, for just this reason. (Also, because I never know when I will end up filling the one I am carrying.) I don’t mean to say that I have two notebooks on my person at all times, but in my backpack, which goes on trips with me, I carry a spare. In this case, when we returned to our hotel room, I put the damaged notebook (which had about 4 blank pages left) into my backpack and pulled out the spare:

In this case, the spare happened to be one of the new Field Notes Trailhead editions, and this was the first time I’d used one. (I selected the Adirondack trail since I live on the east coast.) This served me well for the rest of our time at the beach. In a way, I think it was something of a lucky break (no pun intended): scanning the first four pages of the new notebooks, I find that I jotted down 9 blog post ideas. Was it the notebook, or my time off at the beach that produced so many ideas in such a short span?

When I returned home, I went through the usual routine of closing out a notebook. First, I repaired the notebook with Scotch tape, a low-tech solution that works fine, considering that now that the notebook in question is no longer a “working” notebook, but a reference document. You can kind of see where I taped it in the images below.

Next, I updated my Index to my Field Notes notebooks. This is just a simple index of notebook number, which I write on the back of a new notebook (see the image above right, for example), and the dates that the notebook spans.

One “feature” I’ve added to my index is that I’ve noted which notebooks I’ve filled during the pandemic. My thought was that when I was much older, or the kids were older, it might be interesting to go back and remind ourselves what life was like during the pandemic. I’m looking forward to drawing the second horizontal blue line that will represent the practical end to the pandemic. It can’t come too soon.

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My Spy Notebook?

We headed to the beach this past weekend for a mini-vacation. Late on Sunday afternoon we wandered into a Hawaiian-style restaurant, Nalu, for an early dinner. I did my usual thing: after scanning the menu to decide what I wanted, I jotted it down in my Field Notes notebook. I do this for two reasons: (1) so that I don’t forget what I want to order; and (2) so that I have a record of it if I ever return. I also usually jot down the name of our server when they arrive at the table. I’m far less likely to forget their name if I jot it down.

When our server wandered over to take our order, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down his name, and then told him what I wanted. He looked at me and looked at my notebook and was visibly uncomfortable. I ordered a beer with my food and that seemed to put him at ease. Later, when he came by to bring me another beer, I had my notebook out again, this time because Grace was teaching us a game she’d learned in school, Pico Fermi Nada1, and I was attempting to play. Setting my beer on the table, our server referred to me as the C.I.A. guy. “You’re always jotting stuff down in your little notebook,” he said. By “always” I assume he meant the time I jotted down my order.

In seven years of carrying around these notebooks, this was the first time–the very first time–that it make someone other than me uncomfortable. I say “other than me” because for the first few years, I felt awkward about pulling out my notebook to jot down the name of the person I just met, or to take notes when on a tour of some kind. No one else ever seemed to notice, let alone mind. But it seemed to really unsettle this fellow. Maybe he mistook the numbers I’d scribble in order to figure out the 3-digit code in Pico Fermi Nada as some kind of secret code.

The pages in question from our evening at the restaurant

Friends have gotten used to me pulling out my notebook to jot something down. More often than not, I hear them say, “That’s a great idea, I should do that.” Occasionally someone mentions that they take notes on their phone and how great that is. I usually just smile and nod at this. There’s no need to go into all of the note-taking and to-do apps that I have tried over the years that haven’t worked as well as my Field Notes notebook and a pen. People occasionally ask about the notebook. This happens more frequently if it is a particularly interesting edition of the Field Notes notebooks.

Field Notes makes a Clandestine edition that comes complete with a decoder ring. I wonder what our server might have thought if I happened to be using that notebook instead of the United States of Letterpress edition I had on me.

Front and back covers of my Clandestine edition notebook.

Looking at these pages now, it occurs to me that I didn’t write down our server’s name this time. I think maybe I was distracted by his thinking that I was a C.I.A. guy.

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  1. Apparently a variant of Pico Fermi Bagel.

How My Journal Notebooks Have Changed Over the Years

When I first started keeping a journal/diary, I used a thin, bluish “Record” book that I found in an office supply story. I bought for two reasons: (1) it was inexpensive, and (2) it was thin. I wasn’t sure how long this endeavor of mine would last. If I filled one notebook, I could buy another. So, on April 6, 1996, I made my first entry in that “Record” book.

After filling two volumes of that notebook, I felt more confident that I could keep up my journal every day. When the time came to get a new volume after filling the second, I opted for something larger. This time, I bought a thick, leather-bound volume that contained more than 300 lined pages. This was a more expensive notebook than the blue record book I’d used, but I was making a little more money so I figured I could afford it. As an added bonus, the pages were numbered. I ended up filling three of these volume between late 1996 through 1999.

In both of these notebooks were lined, but other than that, were completely free-form. There was nothing limiting what I would write. Most entries were relatively short for a given day, but some could go on for a page or more. The pens I used varied. Flipping through these older journals, I find a mix of blue and black inks, as well as print and cursive writing depending upon my moods.

When the millennium rolled around, I decided once again to change things up. I decided to buy a “Standard Diary” dated for the year, with the idea that I could continue these volumes on into the new century. The edition I chose was one that had a pre-printed page for each day in the year, with the date already there. All I had to do was fill the page. This simplified things, somewhat. I had a limited amount of space for each day, and so I didn’t have to worry about filling pages and pages each day. Just hit the highlights. I was inspired in this by a passage from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. Writing about starting his own diary, Asimov said,

In most cases, I suspect, a dairy pasta for a few days, a few weeks, a year at most. Sometimes, though, it endures, and in my case it did. It is still going on today, and dozens of annual diaries stand side-by-side on my shelf like good and faithful soldiers, each of them, with one or two exceptions, in the same style.

The idea of having a shelfful of these standard diaries side-by-side appealed to me.

The Standard Diary lasted five years, although in 2010, I went back to it for a single year. After 2010 my written journal become more intermittent as I wrote more and more on this blog (which started in 2005).

In 2017, things changed again. I’d written a post on the paradox of journaling, and in reply to that post, a reader, Jack Bary, pointed me to an article about a fellow named John Gadd, who’d been keeping a journal since 1947. The article was a revelation to me. In this article, I saw how it was possible to really keep a journal, to do it all longhand, to index it, and to make it multimedia. So in October 2017, my journaling began again with renewed vigor. After pondering several choices, I settled on the Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbook A4. At $27/each, it was by far the most expensive notebook I’d used to that point.

I fell in love with it almost at once. The paper is off-white and thick, at 111 lb. There are 96 usable pages, all completely blank which makes it perfect for both written word and pictures and other items. I began to tape photos into the books along with my entries. Sometime ticket stubs from events would find their way in, or “I Voted” stickers alongside entries on elections I’ve voted in. I also decided to try something new: rather than try to index my notebook by page, I gave each entry a unique number (beginning at #1) and when I index things, I refer to the entry number. This has proved useful in several ways. In volume 3 I might refer to an entry in volume one simply by number. Unlike page number, the entry numbers don’t restart with each volume.

Since October 2017, I’ve filled 8 of these volumes, approximately 770 pages over the last 4 years. They have been more successful than any other notebook I’ve tried.

And yet, I recently decided to try mixing it up once again. I happened to look back at pictures John Gadd’s notebooks from the article and saw that his notebooks were lined. I thought perhaps a lined notebook would help with my handwriting. These days, I write my journals in cursive because I can write faster, but the legibility varies from day-to-day. Perhaps lined paper would help with the consistency, I thought.

I ordered a Moleskine Classic Notebook, Hardcover XXL. At 8-1/2 x 11 inches, it is a little smaller than the A4. On the other hand, it has twice the number of pages. And they are lined pages. It is also even more expensive than the Art Collection version at $29. Alas, my little experiment lasted exactly 3 days. The main problem was the quality of the paper. It is less than half as thick as the Art Collection paper. Ink from my fountain pen easily bleeds through. And because the paper is so thin, it is not as easy to tape or glue photos and other things into the notebook. You can see some of this illustrated below, with the Art Collection edition on the left and the newer Classic Notebook on the right.

The new notebook didn’t even make it 2 full pages before I realized it was wrong for me. Indeed, if you can manage to read my writing on the right-hand page, the final paragraph of the top entry reads:

Not sure if I like the thin paper in this notebook. There is a lot of bleed through. But I am going to stick with it for now because I have the notebook and I don’t want it to go to waste.

This morning I realized that it just doesn’t work for me, so I am going back to my trusted Art Collection editions. I think I knew how much I liked the Art Collection editions from pretty early on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on them in later years so I bought a bunch in advance. There, on my shelf where my journals are arrayed like good and faithful soldiers, are 3 blank Art Collection notebooks, still in their shrink wrap. I just pulled one of them off the shelf, and volume 9 will start today.

It is important to experiment with change. Sometimes you discover something new and wonderful. Other times, you learn that what you’ve been doing all along really is what works best for you.

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Battered and Ink-Stained

Sometimes it is hard to remember what I have written here and what I haven’t. Yesterday, for instance, my friend Mike asked how I carry around my notebook and pen. In my reply, I joked that my answer deserved a post of its own. Then I got to thinking it wasn’t really a joke. I could write a post about what I carry around in my pockets every day. I could write about the annoyances of having to pull all of that stuff out, clown-car style, each time I pass through a security checkpoint. I could tell of the amused looks I get when I pull things out of every pocket on my person. I even came up with a perfect title: What’s In Your Pocket.

But you’re ahead of me already. As I am wont to do these days, I did a quick search of the blog for the term “pocket” and almost immediately found a 2016 post titled–wait for it–“What’s in Your Pocket?” in which I wrote about what I carry around in my pockets, the annoyances about having to pull it all out at security check points, the amusing looks, etc., etc.

Instead, I decided I should stick to Mike’s question–and his comment. Mike asked:

how do you carry your notebook and writing implement? As one with ink stains in places they don’t want and who detests rumpled corners and bent pages, I’m always on the hunt for the best way to, well, carry.

Believe it or not, I’ve been asked this question frequently, perhaps because I’ve written about my Field Notes notebooks frequently. The answer is that I carry the notebook in my back left pocket. I’ve been keeping it there for the better part of seven years now. On the rare instances when I discover it isn’t there, I get that unsettled feeling one gets when one realizes keys or phone is missing. Along with the notebook, I slip two pens into the same pocket, one black, and one blue ink Pilot G-2 0.7.

I think Mike might have been looking for a better answer than “in my back pocket along with my pens.” He was looking for a way to protect both this clothes and the integrity of his notebook from the destructive forces a pocket can apply to page corners, covers, and the like. But to me, this is part of the beauty of using a notebook in the first place. I want my notebook to be well-used. It should look battered and ink-stained. I think of that scene from Raider’s of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones pulls out his field notebook and with pencil between teeth, begins flipping pages. His is the notebook of an active field archeologist. My notebooks, battered though they are, reflect how much I use them.

I pulled a random stack of my used notebooks from the shelf and spread them out to illustrate just how battered they get over the course of their lives in the confines of my back pocket. Fanned across the top are a random collection. Below them is my current notebook, about two-thirds of the way filled.

A random collection of my well-used notebooks.

To see just how well-worn these notebooks get, here are some close, more detailed shots. In the first two images, you can see how battered the notebooks get. I love this about them. They start out almost pristine, and there is nothing quite like starting a new notebook. But as I use them, it shows. The third image shows some extremes, as in where I have to take the cover of the notebook so that it stays on.

My pockets get ink-stained as well. Not huge stains of ink, but small, black and blue stains where the points of the pens touch the fabric when they are exposed. This is the cost of doing business. This is like Indiana Jones’s dusty hat and outfit showing the rigors of his labor. Kelly and the kids have come to accept these ink stains and no one else asks about them, although I’d be happy to explain them if they did.

This is probably a long answer than what Mike was looking for, and maybe not the answer he was looking for either. If there are readers out there who, like Mike, prefer to keep their notebooks wrinkle-free and clothes ink-free while carrying around your notebook, please drop your suggestions for how you do this in the comments. And meanwhile, if you are looking for some more good stuff to read, you can check out Mike’s blog.

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The Importance of Writing It Down

My morning routine was a little out of whack yesterday. On Saturday, we made a long day trip to Lancaster, PA, about a 2-1/2 hour drive north. We spent the day at an amusement park for the Littlest Miss’s birthday. We left the house at 8 am on Saturday and were home just before 10 pm Saturday night. It was 300 miles of driving and 7 hours on my feet at the park. I was tired. So I slept in later than normal, and didn’t head out for my morning walk until 7:30 am, an hour and a half later than usual.

When routines go sideways, that’s when things get missed. I left my Field Notes notebook and pens back at the house. I realized this on my walk. I was listening to Episode 528 of the Tim Ferriss Podcast, listing to Tim interview Jimmy Wales. Something was said and I pulled out my notebook to write it down–and my notebook wasn’t there!

So rare is it that I am without my notebook that the feeling I had was the same feeling I get when I feel for my keys and suddenly realize they are not in my pocket. It is that sinking, uh-oh feeling. It latest for a millisecond but it was there. I was annoyed that I’d forgotten my notebook. I pulled out my phone and emailed myself the note I was going to take and continued walked.

My walks are often punctuated with stops like these. Something I am listening to will trigger a thought, or I’ll get an idea for a blog post, or remember something that I have to do later in the day. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to always stop what I am doing and write down the thought. If there is even a question of whether or not it is worth writing down, I err on the side of caution. I have never regretted jotting a note in my notebook, but I have often regretted not writing down some idea that popped into my head, thinking I’ll remember it later. I never remember it later. Often, this means stopping half a dozen times on a morning walk to jot notes. This is true at any time of the day or night. If I wake up in the dark with an idea, I’ll grab my notebook, which is always on the nightstand beside me, and jot the note. Sometimes I’ll turn on the light, other times I’ll do my best in the dark.

My Field Notes notebooks are filled with things that would otherwise have disappeared from my short term memory forever. They are the way I remember things for later. Thus, the importance of writing it down. Sometimes, I feel silly. When meeting new people, I am terrible with names. I’ve tried the trick of saying the person’s name and that never seems to work for me. What I do instead, is casually pull out my notebook and jot down the names as soon as I can. That helps immensely. But people sometimes look at me funny when I pull out a notebook. I’ve gotten over it. I’ve had to, if I want to remember these things.

When I go to the store to get, say, milk, and ask Kelly if there is anything else we need, if she gives me more than 2 things, I write them down. At the amusement park yesterday, I jotted a list of all of the rides we went on, so that I could write in more detail about them later. Just seeing the list helps to trigger memories of the events.

The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.
The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.

Being without my Field Notes notebook was much more uncomfortable than those rare occasions when I forget to take my phone with me. Being able to write things down in the moment helps me continue with my day, and come back to those things later, when I am ready. Whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll remember this,” alarm bells go off in my head and I’ll write it down. The worst come when those alarm bells go off while driving. Then, I’ll lean on Kelly, and ask her to jot something down for me.

Stephen King has said he doesn’t write down ideas because the good ones will keep coming back and the bad ones will disappear. I see value in that, but jotting down notes and ideas, for me, is quick and easy, and takes up little space in a notebook. So why not write them down, even if I never come back to it?

It reminds me of that old piloting adage: I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here. When it comes to writing notes, I’d rather write it down and never use it, than not write it down and lose it forever.

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The Lure of Paper Systems

Not long ago, I came across Ryan Holiday’s notecard system for remembering, organizing, and using everything he reads. It was instantly appealing to me, the way that reading about John Gadd’s journals changed the way I did my own journals back in 2017. You can read about Ryan’s methods at length, but the gist of it is that he puts everything onto 4×6 index cards which he then categorizes, files, and then uses for whatever he needs. As soon as I finished reading his post (which was originally written in 2014) I bought myself 300 4×6 index cards with the idea of testing out the method with my own reading notes. (A few examples that I used for this post are below.)

I enjoy reading, but I also read to learn. I mark up books, both paper and digital, and then I take those notes and capture them in Obsidian. After that… not much happens. It took a fair amount of time for me to write the scripts that I used to capture those notes and link them the way I wanted in Obsidian. I like being able to see the web of relationships that form, but the return hasn’t been worth the investment.

This seems to be a theme with me when it comes to digital systems. I find very cool tools, and then decide that they aren’t quite cool enough, that they need more. I’ll then spend a ton of time writing my own code to integrate, automate, and manipulate the tools to do something very specific for me–in this case, take my Kindle highlights and notes and move them into Obsidian. I spent years doing this with Evernote, only to find my use of Evernote scale back to basic document capture. I’ve probably spent more hours writing scripts to automate tasks around my writing than I have actually writing fiction. And I can’t even begin to quantify the amount of time I have spent investigating tools, switching to them for a period of time, only to find something else later.

I find myself increasingly drawn back to paper systems. Recently, I tried switching to a digital journal as a mean to be more efficient, but ultimately switched back to paper. I’ve never found a notes app that works well for me for ephemeral notes. Instead, I’ve been incredibly happy using Field Notes notebooks to serve this purpose. And while I do have a digital version of my reading list, my master list is contained in the pages of a Leuchtterm 1917 notebook.

a recent page from my master reading list notebook
A recent page from my “master” reading list notebook.

Thinking about this, it seems that paper systems are more effective for me than digital ones. There are a number of reasons for this, but they boil down to four things: simplicity, ease-of-use, effectiveness, and longevity

Simplicity

  • If I need to make a quick note, I simply pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot it down. I have yet to find an app that works faster or more reliably than that.
  • When I want to write in my journal, I pull it off the shelf and start writing. There is no need to log into a computer, or open a document, no need to worry about formatting or data syncing.
  • For me, the thing I want to do needs to be really simple, otherwise, I’ll eventually give up on it.

Ease of use

  • You can’t get much simpler than scribbling in a notebook or on an index card. There are no keyboard commands to remember, commands that often vary from one app to another. There is nothing to “save” or “open.” I don’t have to worry about syncing with cloud services, or whether a password has expired.
  • If the power is out, or I don’t have Internet access, my notebooks and note cards are still accessible and usable.

Effectiveness

These simple system work for me. I have little processes I’ve built up (how I number my journal entries for easy indexing) or how to Iabel post ideas in my Field Notes notebook so that I can easily identify them for later use.

But perhaps what makes these systems most effective is that I don’t get distracted writing code to try to improve them. Being on paper, they are already about as refined as they can get.

Longevity

I still have notebooks from college, and diaries from 25 years ago. I have school papers going back to kindergarten. Yet I have only a small number of digital files from college: a few papers, a few stories I wrote. Most notes I took on the computer back then are gone. I can’t begin to imagine how much digital stuff I’ve created that has been lost over the years, not by accident, but because I simply didn’t care enough to keep it. For me, if I can touch it, it seems to matter more than if I can’t.

There is always the question of how long digital media will last. We’ve only had it in the modern sense for about fifty years. But there are countless diaries and journals that have survived hundreds of years. Famous examples include John Adams1 and John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. As Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Da Vinci:

His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our town tweets likely won’t be.

But it is not just the paper of famous people that lasts. Currently, I am reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson. In it, he describes the early battles of the Revolutionary War in great detail, often relying on the diaries of average citizens and militia on both sides of the fight. I’ve made it through the first three chapters as of this writing, and along the way, encountered the following citations:

  • …Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary.
  • A physician visiting from Virginia told his diary…
  • …recorded in his diary
  • …Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own told his diary.
  • …a parson told his diary
  • …a deacon in Brighton noted in his diary.
  • …Reverend Ezra Stiles told his diary…
  • Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary…

There are about half a dozen more and that’s in just the first three chapters. You get the idea. There is a level of confidence in the longevity of paper systems that just doesn’t isn’t there with digital systems. Paper can burn, of course, but I treat paper with more care than I do digital documents.


One of the reasons I’ve put a lot of effort into digital systems in the past is to leverage their ability to do things faster than I can do them myself. Searching for something is a great example of this. Having my journals in digital form means that I could easily search for stuff in them. But when I have kept them in digital form, I’ve found that I simply don’t search them enough to make it worthwhile. Instead, I’ve developed a simple way of indexing my journals (on paper) so that if I don’t know immediately where to go, I can use the index as a guide.

a recent journal "index" page
Sample index page for August 2021. Number in parentheses represent journal entries on the topic

My reasons for building the scripts that take my reading notes and import them into Obsidian was to leverage Obsidian’s ability to link notes together. I thought I’d gain new insights from this. But this wasn’t how things turned out. The notes go in automatically, and I never look at them again. It has been different with the notecards. After finishing a book, I’ll go through it and make notecards from things I’ve highlighted in the book. I’ll organize them by topic or theme and them file them away. I do the same thing for anything I read: magazine articles, blog posts, etc. That means that some themes (say “Paper v. digital” — see the images above) contain cards from many different sources. That is much more useful to me. And there is something about the tactile use of paper, whether notebooks or cards, that impresses them into my memory better than looking at the same information on a screen.

More than any of that, however, is the time saved by not writing code to build all kinds of integrations that I won’t end up using. Instead, I can just read, or write, or jot downs notes.

This is not to say that paper is always better. I use Obsidian, for instance, for all of my work-related notes. I used to keep my notes in those marble notebooks you find for 50-cents at Target during back-to-school sales. But I do search work notes frequently, and often refer back to them. It makes much more sense to me to have those notes in digital form. I use Obsidian because underneath, it is just plain text and compatible with everything.

Calendars work better for me in digital form than they do on paper.

I prefer paper books to digital versions and paper magazines to electronic ones, but the fact that the latter take up no physical space is a big plus. So I read books on a Kindle in lieu of paper when it is convenient, and I read magazines mostly on my phone, except for a handful that I get in the mail each month, also because it is convenient.

But isn’t digital easier? Maybe, but maybe easy is not the point. In his post on his card system, Ryan Holiday writes:

I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for gettin gate structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I dumb into stuff I had forgotten about.

This resonated with me. The ability to collect random bits and shuffle them and reshuffle them, that tactile feeling of manipulating the information, is important to me, and it is something that is much more difficult to do in digital systems that exist today. If you think of each “note” in Evernote as a card, how do you “shuffle” the notes into some useful order? How do you reshuffle them when needed? How do you easily “flip” to a random card? Ditto notes in Obsidian.

Paper systems are also cheap compared to their digital counterparts. Even my more expensive Moleskine Art Collection notebooks (about $28/each) cost less than half of an annual subscription to Evernote. And for the price of an iPhone or a MacBook, how many good notebooks, index cards, fountain pens, etc. could I buy that would far outlast the need for me to upgrade said phone or laptop?

A few days ago, I sat in my office with a 1996 diary in my lap, flipping through the pages and stopping now and then to read a passage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just doing a bit of time travel. I could have done the same thing in a different way if that diary had been in digital form, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have seen my own handwriting, and the cross-outs I’d made here and there. I wouldn’t have seen the color of the ink change from one day to another, or how I wrote in cursive one day and printed the next. I would have missed the blood stain on one page from a cut, or the corner I’d torn off a page to jot something down.

The lure of paper systems is about more than simplicity, ease of use, effectiveness, and longevity. The lure of paper systems, for me, is about history. The paper contains history. It yellows with age. It carries stains. It shows wear. It has a feel and smell and even a sound: pages riffling; that tap of an index card on your fingers; the whisper of a fountain pen across the page. Digital systems have none of these things, at least not to the extent that paper has. I can take a Field Notes notebook into the woods on a hike with me and not feel connected to the world. I can’t say the same when I have my phone and note-taking apps in my pocket.

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  1. Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to a digital version of a paper diary that has been around for over 200 years.

The First Page of a New Notebook

Packing for our recent road trip vacation, I grabbed a blank Field Notes notebook and tossed it into my backpack. I had only halfway filled my current Field Notes notebook, but I tend to jot down a lot more random stuff on the road than when I am at home and I don’t want to be without a spare.

There is something so pleasant about a new notebook. It is pristine, clean. By the time I fill a notebook, it looks well-worn, and I like that look. But there is something so appealing about a brand new notebook. I put it in the same category as freshly mown lawns, and new haircuts.

Flipping through a bunch of my old Field Notes notebooks, I noticed a trend: the first page of the notebook is always much neater than the pages that follow. I’d never noticed this before, but it’s true. It is as if I want to maintain the pristine quality of the pages by writing as neatly as I can on that first page. After the first page, things go rapidly downhill. Especially when I am on trips–in the field, so to speak. I often jot things down while I am walking, which is not an easy task.

messy page from field notes notebook
A messy page from my current notebook, with scribblings from our time at Niagara Falls

This phenomenon seems to hold true regardless of the type of notebook I am using. When I start a new Moleskine Art Collection notebook for my journal, I love the clean look of the notebook, and always write extra-neatly on that first page. The phenomenon carries through to the Leuchtterm 1917 notebooks that I have as well. (I keep my master reading list in one of these notebooks, and this is the one exception to the above rule: all the pages in this notebook are usually neat.)

In the past, I’ve mentioned how the final pages of a notebook are often blank. I suspect this is in part because I am eagerly awaiting the new notebook, and the chance to write neatly, at least on one page. Indeed, just knowing that I have a blank notebook sitting in my backpack is a temptation. But it is one that I try to live with stoically. After all, I’d rather have a blank notebook waiting to be used than no notebook at all.

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Failed Attempts at Digital Journaling

My Moleskine paper journals

It is important to know what you are not good at, if for no other reason than to decide either to improve, or to stop wasting time on them. Over the years, for instance, I have made several attempts at keeping my journal in digital form, instead of in notebooks of various kinds. My reasons for doing this always seem pure. I type faster than I handwrite. It My typing is not illegible when I type faster. My hands grow less tired when I type. I think this means I’ll write more on a computer than I would in a notebook.

But it never works out. Take my most recent foray into digital journaling. I was looking for small efficiencies in my day. I thought that by being able to type my journal, I’d get it done faster, possibly write more, and also have a place where I could easily search my journal for what I was looking for. All of these were perfectly sensible. And still, things turned out much worse than if I just stuck to writing in my Moleskine notebooks.

This most recent adventure began about a month ago, and at first, it seemed to work well. Between June 29 and July 16 I banged out nearly 7,000 words in my digital journal, far more than I probably would have written on paper, although I’m not completely certain of this. So far, so good, right? Well, since July 17, I haven’t written a word–the longest stretch I’ve gone without writing in my journal since possibly 2017.

This is part of a recurring pattern. Ever since I first started keeping a journal in 1996, I’ve been repeatedly fooled by the paradox of journaling, in much the way Charlie Brown is lured by Lucy’s promises that she won’t pull the football away this time. Every now and then, some whisper in my mind tells me it will be much easier if I type it into a computer than writing in a notebook. It hints at time saved; it hints at the ability to search my journal using regular expressions. It is an alluring voice, the dark twin of the call of the wild. The problem is, I can never sustain it for very long, and ultimately give it up.

I cannot explain why this should be. When I write in my notebooks with pen and ink, I can go for years without skipping a day. It took all of two and a half weeks for me to give up my digital journal. I’ve tried to think about what causes this. The answers I have thus far are weak and uncertain, but two are worth contemplating

  1. I spend enough time on computers that I want to be done and so I don’t put in the extra time to write my journal.
  2. I somehow feel that there is more permanence to what I write in a notebook, and am therefore more committed to it as a lasting repository of my writing than digital media.

I think the latter point may be the crux of the issue for me. When I read Walter Isaacson’s fantastic biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I was impressed by a point Isaacson made the importance of which seemed all out of proportion with the rest of the book. Isaacson wrote:

[Da Vinci’s] mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

Somehow, I have internalized this. Indeed, I’ve had the experience where some of my digital writing is forever lost to the ether. While I have most of the stories I’ve ever written going back to 1992 in digital form, I have nearly none of the digital journaling I’ve ever done. Instead, I have diaries and notebooks filling with my journal writing. The one exception to this strange rule is my writing here on the blog, which covers a span (as of this writing) of 16 years and is, in some respects, a kind of public-facing journal. Still, I have this suspicion that because my physical notebooks have weight and texture, they, and what they contain, are more valuable than intangible bits stored in clouds.

I suppose that if you were to search this blog, you’d find among the nearly 7,000 posts, a few where I confess this problem, only to write later on about yet another attempt to migrate my journal into the digital realm. This is me in the role of Charlie Brown, to the digital world’s Lucy, holding a virtual football, and then pulling it away at the last moment. Sometimes, even when I recognize my mistakes and failings, it is hard not to repeat them.

All of this to say: as of this morning, I am back to fountain pen and ink in my Moleskine Art Collection large sketchbooks.

In the future, if you see me eagerly writing about how I am once again going to move my journal into digital form of some kind, kindly drop a comment on that post with a gentle reminder of the inevitable results. I think a simple, “Good grief!” would do the trick.

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Trailhead: My Newest Field Notes Addition

As part of my Field Notes annual subscription, I get a quarterly shipment of the newest Field Notes notebooks. Yesterday’s mail brought their 51st quarterly edition, “Trailhead.” This edition’s theme, as you might guess from the title, are the great trails of the United States. Each 3-pack of notebooks comes with a different trail printed on the back, and facts about the trail on the inside back flap of the notebook.

My new Field Notes "Trailhead" notebooks
My new Field Notes “Trailhead” notebooks

These editions contain lined pages. I prefer squares or dotted squares, but I like that these pages are an off-white. As with most of the subscription packs, this one came with an extra goodie: a Field Notes “Blaze Your Trail” patch.

Field Notes Blaze Your Trail patch

This quarterly shipment is the 17th consecutive quarterly shipment I’ve received from Field Notes since I began subscribing back in 2016. I began my subscription with their 34th quarterly edition and the Trailhead edition marks Field Notes 51st quarterly edition. Despite having filled more than 30 notebooks at this point, I still have more coming in than I can fill at any moment. I have a section of shelf in my office dedicated to a wide variety of fresh notebooks to choose from once I fill one up:

My collection of Field Notes notebooks ready for use when I need a fresh one.
My collection of Field Notes notebooks ready for use when I need a fresh one.

I have a tendency to use whatever the latest notebook is as the next notebook, so chances are good I’ll pull out one of the Trailhead notebooks when I finish with my current notebook–which happens to be a United States of Letterpress edition.

It’s fun to occasionally go back and flip through the old notebooks. There is all kinds interesting stuff in them, like when I had to locate the name of a beer I liked. I recently began an experiment of scanning in the old notebooks to make them easier to search no matter where I was. I scanned in one as an experiment. Now I have to go back and scan in the other 29 that I have already filled. I’ll get to that eventually. Filling a notebook is much more fun than scanning one.

It occurred to me that while I know of friends and a few other people online who have told me that they also use Field Notes notebooks, I’ve never run into anyone at the grocery store, or a conference, or anywhere else I can think of that has a Field Notes notebook in their pocket, and is pulling out the notebook frequently enough for me to notice that they are using one two. I see people with Yankees hats all the time. How come I don’t see more people with Field Notes notebooks (or any notebook) for that matter, jotting things down? Does everyone use their phone for this stuff these day? I still find taking notes on my phone way too cumbersome and time-consuming.

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The Weekly Playbook #4: Finishing a Notebook: Transcribe or Scan?

For an overview of this series, see the debut post on my morning routine.

Background

I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. Several times a day, I pull out my notebook to jot something down: an idea for a post; notes from a podcast; the names of people I meet; items to pick up at the grocery store; the name of the server in the restaurant we ate at; funny lines I hear at a gathering. I do this so that I can remember these things later. Some of them find their way into posts I write, some into stories. Other things are more ephemeral, but even a server’s name in a restaurant can be useful if I am searching for a character name in a story.

I’ve filled more than 30 of these notebooks since 2015. They sit in a nice row on a shelf in my office. Occasionally I go back to them, to look for something, like when I was searching for a particular brand of beer recently. The problem is, I only have access to them when I am sitting here in my office. It would be nice to have access to them no matter where I was.

my 30 completed field notes notebooks with an index notebook on top
My 30 completed Field Notes notebooks, with an index notebook on top.

This weekly playbook is a kind of experiment. I began with the idea that I wanted to be able to access these notes anywhere. I had two ideas:

  1. Transcribe the notebooks into Obsidian, where my other notes live, or
  2. Scan them into Evernote

I decide to try both in order to see what worked better for me. The playbook section below has the procedures I followed for each. In each case, I used my most recently completed notebook, book #30. I’ll describe my findings in the commentary.

Playbook

Transcribing notebook into Obsidian

  1. Create a Field Notes folder in Obsidian
  2. Create a new note called “Book 30 – March to June 2021.
  3. Begin typing in the notes using the following guidelines:
    • Make each “day” a header in the notes
    • If my handwriting is unintelligible, put question marks and move on.
    • Wherever I have a dividing line in my notebook, include a divider in the notes file
    • Use only one file per notebook

Scanning notebook into Evernote

  1. Create a Field Notes notebook in Evernote.
  2. Using the Scannable app by Evernote, scan in all 48 pages of my notebook #30, including the cover and inside cover.
  3. Once scanned, put the note in the Field Notes notebook
  4. Title the note “Book 30 – March to June 2021”
  5. Set the create date of the note to March 1, 2021
transcribed notebook page in obsidian
A transcribed notebook page in Obsidian
scanned notebook page in evernote
A scanned notebook page in Evernote

Commentary

It probably took me an hour to transcribe the first 15 pages of the Field Notes notebook into Obsidian. After an hour I stopped. It is easy enough to estimate that a full notebook would take me a little over 3 hours to transcribe.

On the other hand, it took about 15 minutes to scan the entire notebook into Evernote using the Scannable app. (I think Evernote’s Scannable app does a slightly better job at scanning than the regular iOS app does.)

For me, the Evernote scan is the better over all option. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is quick enough to make it worthwhile. Investing 15 minutes to have the contents of the notebook available to me anywhere is a worthwhile investment of time. 3 hours is a little much. I am not likely to invest 3 hours, but 15 minutes is no big deal.
  2. The notebook really is available anywhere. The screenshot above is from my phone. I can flip through the pages just as I can with any PDF.
  3. Scanning preserves everything in my notes, include occasional sketches and diagrams that I make.
  4. Evernote uses its AI to attempt to make the PDF searchable. It is supposed to be able to recognize handwriting. I made several attempt, but I think my handwriting is too messy. Still, for people with very neat writing, the notebook is searchable. I keep the notes in their own notebook in Evernote for this reason: when I want to search for something in a Field Notes notebook, I can limit the search to notes in the Field Notes notebook so that I don’t get results from other sources.

There are a few cons to using Evernote over Obsidian:

  1. The notebook is not as searchable as it would be if I transcribed it into Obsidian. I could probably find things faster in Obsidian.
  2. My notes would be in plain text format and could be manipulated like any plain text.
  3. I could do more dynamic linking of my notes to other notes using Obsidian. (You can link to other notes in Evernote, but there is no practical way to do this in scanned documents.)

Another consideration is that I want to get my entire backlog of notebooks in a format that I can access anywhere. Transcribing 30 notebooks into Obsidian would be an investment of nearly 100 hours of my time. Scanning 30 notebooks into Evernote is an investment of 7-1/2 hours. From a practical standpoint, this is a no-brainer.

Then, too, since the notes already exist, they fit into the model of using Evernote for curation and collection, and using Obsidian for creation.

Remember, my goal at the outset was to be able to access the notebooks from anywhere. My goal wasn’t to make them as searchable as they could be. I’m fine flipping through a PDF to find what I am looking for. It usually doesn’t take very long, so it seems like the investment in time to manually transcribe all of my notes would be overkill.

Going forward, when I finish a notebook, I’ll follow the procedures for scanning that notebook into Evernote.

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Searching for Beer in a Stack of Notebooks

This morning after dropping off some mail at the post office, I happened to step into a local grocery store. I forgot what an amazingly wide variety of beer they sold. Once in the store, I remembered that a local beer that I really enjoyed once on tap at a restaurant, I was able to find later in this store. The problem was, I could no longer remember the name of the beer because I was so long ago.

There are 3 long aisles of beer in the store, and I tried perusing the labels to see if it managed to shake free the cobwebs that had gathered in the halls of my memory, but no luck. It occurred to me that my brother-in-law would enjoy this beer, and since I’ll be seeing him this weekend, I could pick some up. If only I could remember the name. I headed home empty-handed and dejected.

On the way home, I remembered writing down the name of the beer in one of my Field Notes notebooks. I’ve filled 30 of these notebooks since 2015, but I kept them all, and they are neatly stacked in my office. I couldn’t remember the timing, however, so I decided to start in the middle, then go the beginning, then the end, and work my way in from each side. I found nothing in Notebook 15. So I moved onto Notebook 1. I found the name of the beer on page 8 of Notebook 1, right after a quote I’d jotted down from The Newsroom.

Performing this search, which looking maying 15 minutes, made me realize 2 things:

  1. There’s a lot of good stuff in those old notebooks.
  2. It’s really difficult to find it.

And thus an idea for a “Field Notes Playbook” was born. The gist of the playbook is that upon completing a Field Notes notebook, I take some time to transfer the notes into Obsidian so that they are searchable at my finger tips.

I mention this because beginning this Friday, I plan to start a new column here on the blog titled, “The Weekly Playbook.” I’ve tried to find ways to be more productive in everything I do. One of the ways I do this, is when I find something that works, I make a playbook for it. Typically, this is a note that describes the steps I need to go through. The thing about playbooks is that they are event-driven and so I try to keep the playbook in mind in the context of the event in question. Over time, I’ve developed dozens of these playbooks, and I thought it would be fun, and possibly informative, to share them with you all on a weekly basis.

If you like my Going Paperless series, then I imagine you might enjoy The Weekly Playbook. In many ways the Going Paperless posts were playbooks, whose focus centered around a single tool: Evernote. Some of the playbooks I use today are related tools: writing tools, email, notebooks, etc. Others, are completely unrelated to technology and are things that I do to be as efficient as I can with my time. You can look forward to the new series beginning on Friday.

Today marks the end of the first half of 2021. When I started 2021, I had a goal of putting more energy into the blog, which I had neglected for most of last year. To that end, I think I’ve been successful. Between January 1 and today, I’ve written 195 posts totaling 115,000 words, and I haven’t missed a single day. Tomorrow, the second half of the year begins I’ve got a few small changes I’ll be announcing, all good, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll also tell you about Project Sunrise, which I’ve already hinted at, but which formally begins on July 1, which I like to think of as my creative new year. Stay tuned for that as well.

Oh, and the beer that I was trying find. It’s called Local Species by Blue Mountain Brewery. Alas, I don’t think they make it anymore. It was a great, one of those beers aged in Bourbon barrels. That’s okay, though. I headed back to that grocery store and found another barrel-aged beer, this one called Wooded Reserve by New Realm Brewery. I picked up a couple of bottles for the weekend.

Two bottles of New Realm Wooded Reserve barrel aged brown ale.

My Latest Field Notes Notebook

I filled up my 30th Field Notes notebook since 2015 this evening. From the stacks of empty notebook, I chose one of their recent United States of Letterpress editions as my next one.

Field Notes United States of Letterpress edition notebook.

I love starting a new notebook. When I get to the last few pages of the old notebook, I find myself looking for reasons to fill up those pages. Sometimes, I look for an excuse to leave them blank. That is what I did today. My excuse for not filling the last two pages was that the cover was beginning to separate from the binding. Notebook #30 had served me well, and was just plain worn out.

That’s how I feel now, and with my new notebook freshly enlisted, I am heading off to bed to catch up on sleep.