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Why Carry a Notebook? A Historical Guide To Field Notes & Journaling


by Dave Johnson 

When talking about notebooks, it would be easy to dismiss them as relics of a forgotten past, when technology didn’t help us with every tiny task from day to day. But dismissing them this way would be a huge disservice to a product that has tremendous old-school advantages over a technological product like a phone or computer. Today I want to talk about the humble notebook, how awesome it is, and how it can help you be more productive, creative, and organized.

The Men Who Write

mark twain journaled

Years ago, I decided to write a book. I didn’t know how hard that would be, but since I enjoyed reading, and because I thought I had something important to say, I dove in. I spent months writing down ideas, outlining, writing draft after draft, editing and rewriting, formatting it, and finally after over a year of work, publishing it. You might be saying to yourself, “I had no idea you wrote a book,” or “I’ve never heard of this author before,” and that’s because the book was a tremendous flop. I’m still glad I wrote it, though.

But one of my favorite parts of the process was just the idea phase, taking a notebook with me everywhere I went, and writing down any ideas that maybe might fit in the book somehow possibly. Countless ideas were in that notebook, some of them great, and some of them forgotten in the cutting room floor, but just having a notebook of ideas where everything could potentially be right, was thrilling. And I guarded that notebook with my life. It never left my side, because if I lost it, all hope was lost. And even after finishing it, I still have my notebook—right here on my desk, actually—ready to be opened and used again, as if it were beckoning me for another adventure. Sometimes it’s fun to go back and look at the forgotten things I wrote—things that are sometimes profound and other times cringy AF.

Famous Men Who Carried a Notebook

I say all this because this is not unique to me at all. There are many, many famous men in history who had personal notebooks to help them in their daily lives. Men like Earnest Hemmingway, Mark Twain, or Ralph Waldo Emmerson had notebooks that they used to help them collate their ideas for their books. Artists like Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ludwig von Beethoven had them. Scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin had them. Even modern-day comedians like Larry David have them to write down jokes. I even heard of one artist who carried a notebook to simply jot down things that inspired him throughout the day.

Doodling and Chicken Scratches Count

I remember as a kid going to church with my dad who always doodled on church bulletins during the sermon. One day I asked him why he doodled all service, and he told me simply, “It helps me remember.” Today, there is a whole market of newfangled gizmos designed to help you burn off some of that pent-up fidgeting energy, and according to the research, it helps you focus. But people have known this for years. Doodlers and note-takers have used something as simple and pervasive as the pen and paper to do just this—and more. Even though technology has advanced to an incredible degree, the simple notebook is an easier and superior way to write down ideas, process thoughts, daydream, remember important things, think abstractly, and more important: to later come back to these notes, doodles, and chicken scratches and remember what it was all about in the first place.

Best-selling author and guru of gurus, Tim Ferris has said many times that the most successful people he’s talked to have had two things in common: they journaled and they meditated regularly. It’s no surprise that Ferris does both now. And I think it’s important to mention journaling here, because everyone journals in different ways, and I think that the simple notebook can really facilitate that journaling therapy in many ways.

What To Write On: Field Notes & Moleskine Notebooks

The co-founder of Field Notes Aaron Draplin has collected thousands of antique memo books used by farmers in the early to mid-twentieth century. These simple notebooks were vital to these farmers’ lives, helping them keep track of crops and other technical farmland details. Now, Draplin recreates modern versions of these memo books in his now legendary Field Notes brand notebooks. They are very high quality for the price, they’re the perfect small size (available in several sizes, actually), and all their books lean toward an Americana charm that is easy to love.

When someone told me they had a Moleskine notebook, I mistakenly thought that their notebook was made of actual skinned moles, which did make me go hunt them down to later be disappointed with the lack of mole leather. Maybe he mispronounced the name, but regardless, Moleskine is another powerhouse notebook brand that is dedicated to making affordable, quality notebooks for people to use like the men of olde did. They have a somewhat more European aesthetic that is also charming and beautiful, and they are available everywhere.

Leather Notebook Covers for Field Notes & Moleskine

leather journals

Both are fantastic notebooks to use, and if you choose either, you can’t go wrong. And since you are using these, don’t forget to check out Jackson Wayne’s Field Notes Journal, which is an incredible little notebook to have. It is made with gorgeous full grain leather, has a pen holder, slots for cards or cash, fits in your back pocket, and includes a Field Notes notebook. It also happens to fit the similarly sized Moleskine, too. This is an incredibly handsome and luxurious way to take notes, and it’s probably the best-looking Jackson Wayne product I’ve used.

Now I love taking notes. I keep my handy Field Notes Journal on my desk, ready to do some math, doodle, write a list, jot an idea, or remember something later. And now Jackson Wayne has me writin’ in style.