Product Review: Rhodia “Webbie” Webnotebook

The Rhodia Webnotebook (or, as people online have dubbed it, the “Webbie”) has an asinine name, but that name shouldn’t prejudice you against the object itself, which is the best notebook I’ve tried since switching away from Moleskine.

Numerous rapturous threads are devoted to this notebook on the Fountain Pen Network (“FPN” to the regulars), which is one of these sites that prove how well-suited the Internet is to connecting people with bizarre, niche hobbies to one another. Being one of those people, I say that with affection. Many, many FPN writers are ecstatic at the prospect of a mass-market notebook whose pages will not let ink bleed through.

Ink bleed was never a problem with Moleskines for me, because I use extra-fine nibs and apparently don’t use inks that saturate paper like rivers do handkerchiefs. Regardless, the Rhodia’s paper is excellent. It’s supposedly acid free too, so the paper won’t degrade before you do under normal use. I’m happier about the durability: I’ve used three Rhodias. None have come close to breaking. A Moleskine broke (though many earlier ones didn’t). An insanely expensive Design.Y notebook broke. A Leuchtturm 1917 has perforated back pages and will probably break.

_MG_8481The Rhodia isn’t perfect. The lines are spaced slightly too wide, at 6.35 mm per line (or .25 inches); they might be great for someone learning how to write, but for someone who already knows, they’re not as useful, and it’s harder to connect ideas on one page to ideas on another. An ideal notebook should be closer to 6 mm per line. Moleskine gets this right. The edge of the cover should be flush with the paper, not a couple millimeters out, forming an unsightly lip. The lines should run to the edge of the page; the current design wastes space, and this is the most important design flaw in the Webnotebook.

They’re small problems that I’d like to see addressed but that don’t detract from the big things. Speaking of size, you can also buy A7-sized notebooks (which are about 4.7 x 3″) from Europe or Australia if you’re willing to pay the obscene shipping. I sent an e-mail to Goulet Pens to ask if they could get A7 notebooks, and Sam Vaughn responded to say that they “can do a special French order for them,” but “when ordering direct from France we have to order by the carton which in this case would be 40 notebooks.” Alas, 40 notebooks would probably be $500 and last for decades. The A7 is a more pocketable size than the 3.5 x 5.5″ American version. Choose it if you can.

Then stop looking and start writing.

EDIT: Note that Rhodia makes much larger, 5.5 x 8.5 notebooks as well.

Why little black books instead of phones and computers

“Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings.” That’s from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. It’s a strange way to begin a post about notebooks, but Jobs’ views on the power of a potentially anachronistic practice applies to other seemingly anachronistic practices. I’m a believer in notebooks, though I’m hardly a luddite and use a computer too much.

The notebook has an immediate tactile advantage over phones: they aren’t connected to the Internet. It’s intimate in a way computers aren’t. A notebook has never interrupted me with a screen that says, “Wuz up?” Notebooks are easy to use without thinking. I know where I have everything I’ve written on-the-go over the last eight years: in the same stack. It’s easy to draw on paper. I don’t have to manage files and have yet to delete something important. The only way to “accidentally delete” something is to leave the notebook submerged in water.Notebook stack

A notebook is the written equivalent of a face-to-face meeting. It has no distractions, no pop-up icons, and no software upgrades. For a notebook, fewer features are better and fewer options are more. If you take a notebook out of your pocket to record an idea, you won’t see nude photos of your significant other. You’re going to see the page where you left off. Maybe you’ll see another idea that reminds you of the one you’re working on, and you’ll combine the two in a novel way. If you want to flip back to an earlier page, it’s easy.

The lack of editability is a feature, not a bug, and the notebook is an enigma of stopped time. Similar writing in a computer can function this way but doesn’t for me: the text is too open and too malleable. Which is wonderful in its own way, and that way opens many new possibilities. But those possibilities are different from the notebook’s. It’s become a cliche to argue that the technologies we use affect the thoughts we have and the way we express those thoughts, but despite being cliche the basic power of that observation remains. I have complete confidence that, unless I misplace them, I’ll still be able to read my notebooks in 20 years, regardless of changes in technology.

In Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson says, “Once perfected, communication technologies rarely die out entirely; rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure.” The notebook’s niche is perfect. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Moleskine racks have proliferated in stores at the same time everyone has acquired cell phones, laptops, and now tablets.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr says: “The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users.” Cell phones subtly change our relationship with time. Notebooks subtly change our relationship with words and drawings. I’m not entirely sure how, and if I were struggling for tenure in industrial design or psychology I might start examining the relationship. For now, it’s enough to feel the relationship. Farhad Manjoo even cites someone who studies these things:

“The research shows that the type of content you produce is different whether you handwrite or type,” says Ken Hinckley, an interface expert at Microsoft Research who’s long studied pen-based electronic devices. “Typing tends to be for complete sentences and thoughts—you go deeper into each line of thought. Handwriting is for short phrases, for jotting ideas. It’s a different mode of thought for most people.” This makes intuitive sense: It’s why people like to brainstorm using whiteboards rather than Word documents.

IMG_2100I like to write in notebooks despite carrying around a smartphone. Some of this might be indicative of the technology I grew up with—would someone familiar with smartphone touchscreens from age seven have sufficiently dexterous fingers to be faster than they would be with paper?—but I think the obvious answer to “handwriting or computer?” is “both, depending.” As I write this sentence, I have a printout of a novel called ASKING ANNA in front of me, covered with blue pen, because editing on the printed page feels different to me than editing on the screen. I write long-form on computers, though. The plural of anecdote is not data. Still, I have to notice that using different mediums appears to improve the final work product (insert joke about low quality here).

There’s also a shallow and yet compelling reason to like notebooks: a disproportionate number of writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers like using them too, and I suspect that even contemporary writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers realize that sometimes silence and not being connected is useful, like quiet and solitude.

In “With the decline of the wristwatch, will time become just another app?”, Matthew Battles says:

Westerners have long been keenly interested in horology, as David Landes, an economic historian, points out in Revolution in Time, his landmark study of the development of timekeeping technology. It wasn’t the advent of clocks that forced us to fret over the hours; our obsession with time was fully in force when monks first began to say their matins, keeping track of the hours out of strict religious obligation. By the 18th century, secular time had acquired the pressure of routine that would rule its modern mode. Tristram Shandy’s father, waiting interminably for the birth of his son, bemoans the “computations of time” that segment life into “minutes, hours, weeks, and months” and despairs “of clocks (I wish there were not a clock in the kingdom).” Shandy’s father fretted that, by their constant tolling of the hours, clocks would overshadow the personal, innate sense of time—ever flexible, ever dependent upon mood and sociability.

The revolution in electronic technology is wonderful in many ways, but its downsides—distraction, most obviously—are present too. The notebook combats them. Notebooks are an organizing or disorganizing principle: organizing because one keeps one’s thoughts, but disorganizing because one cannot rearrange, tag, and structure thoughts in a notebook as one can on a screen (Devonthink Pro is impossible in the real world, and Scrivener can be done but only with a great deal of friction).

Once you try a notebook, you may realize that you’re a notebook person. You might realize it without trying. If you’re obsessed with this sort of thing, see Michael Loper / Rands’ Sweet Decay, which is better on validating why a notebook is important than evaluating the notebooks at hand. It was also written in 2008, before Rhodia updated its Webbie.

Like Rands, I’ve never had a sewn binding catastrophically fail. As a result, notebooks without sewn bindings are invisible to me. I find it telling that so many people are willing to write at length about their notebooks and use a nominally obsolete technology.

Once you decide that you like notebooks, you have to decide which one you want. I used to like Moleskines, until one broke, and I began reading other stories online about the highly variable quality level.

So I’ve begun ranging further afield.

I’ve tested about a dozen notebooks. Most haven’t been worth writing about. But by now I’ve found the best reasonably available notebooks, and I can say this: you probably don’t actually want a Guildhall Pocket Notebook, which is number two. You want a Rhodia Webnotebook.

Like many notebooks, the Guildhall starts off with promise: the pages do lie flat more easily than alternatives. Lines are closely spaced, maximizing writable area, which is important in an expensive notebook that shouldn’t be replaced frequently.

IMG_3900I like the Guildhall, but it’s too flimsy and has a binding that appears unlikely to withstand daily carry. Mine is already bending, and I haven’t even hauled it around that much. The Rhodia is somewhat stiffer. Its pages don’t lie flat quite as easily. The lines should go to the end of each page. But its great paper quality and durability advantage make it better than the alternatives.

The Rhodia is not perfect. The A7 version, which I like better than the 3.5 x 5.5 American version, is only available in Europe and Australia, which entails high shipping costs. The Webbie’s lines should stretch to the bottom of the page and be spaced slightly closer together. The name is stupid; perhaps it sounds better in French. The notebook’s cover extends slightly over its paper instead of aligning perfectly. Steve Jobs would demand perfect alignment. To return to Isaacson’s biography:

The connection between the design of a product, its essence, and its manufacturing was illustrated for Jobs and Ive when they were traveling in France and went into a kitchen supply store. Ive picked up a knife he admired, but then put it down in disappointment. Jobs did the same. ‘We both noticed the tiny bit of glue between the handle and the blade,’ Ive recalled. They talked about how the knife’s good design had been ruined by the way it was being manufactured. ‘We don’t like to think of our knives as being glued together,’ Ive said. ‘Steve and I care about things like that, which ruin the purity and detract from the essence of something like a utensil, and we think alike about how products should be made to look pure and seamless.

I wish the Rhodia were that good. But the Rhodia’s virtues are more important than its flaws: the paper quality is the highest I’ve seen, and none of the Rhodias I’ve bought have broken. If anyone knows of a notebook that combines the Rhodia’s durability with the qualities it lacks, by all means send me an e-mail.

More on the subject: The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men.

EDIT: See also Kevin Devlin’s The Death of Mathematics, which is about the allure of math by hand, rather than by computer; though I don’t endorse what he says, in part because it reminds me so much of Socrates decrying the advent of written over oral culture, I find it stimulating.

Design.Y Notebook Review: The Record 216

EDIT: I sent an e-mail to Design.Y about the binding breakage described below, and they sent me a new notebook. I’ll write another update when I’ve filled the new one.

The most salient feature of the Design.Y “Record 216″* is its price, which varies with the Yen-to-dollar exchange rate but currently hovers around $70 with shipping. Those of you who can do simple math are probably thinking that this is about 35 times greater than a drugstore pocket notebook and fives times a Rhodia Webbie. I want the Design.Y notebooks to be five times better. Hell, I want them to be twice as good. But while the notebook is certainly a lovely object that’s been lovingly packed, like a florist’s rose or an undertaker’s corpse, the Record 216 suffers from one major flaw: the paper is too thin.

I’m constantly crinkling it or creasing the corners or bending the middle when I mean to turn the page (see the photo below for an example). The paper is definitely a joy to write on, but a heavier version would be an improvement; thinner is not always better, as anorexia counselors will remind us. Some pens will bleed through, as shown in the picture to the right. The bleeding problem is not great with my fountain pen, but then I use a extra-fine nib that’s about as slender, if not more so, as the Pilot G2. Users of thicker nibs may have concomitantly greater problems. Still, I can forgive the bleed-through problem. It’s the lightness that bugs me, and the way I subconsciously worry about bending a page when I’m merely trying to turn it.

Almost everything else about the notebook is incredible. It’s been in my pocket for months without suffering any problem greater than a frayed band. The size, at 5.3″ by 3.1″, is quite handy, and I’ve come to like it better than the standard 5.5 x 3.5 size of Rhodia Webbies, Guildhall, Leuchtturm 1917, or Moleskine. The 3.1″ width makes it feel much more portable at no cost to usability; if anything, the sense of a long, narrow column is an enhancement. The line spacing on the page is neither too great (as it is on the Rhodia) nor too small, and lines extend to the edge of the page, as they should. The cover has a very slight lip that doesn’t distract. The Design.Y notebook also sits flat “out-of-the-box,” so to speak, and doesn’t suffer from the stiffness of a fresh Rhodia or Moleskine. That stiffness declines with age, but it’s still present. The binding is strong and supple.

These features don’t quite make up for the paper thinness or price, however. I only go through one notebook every six to twelve months, but even so, $70 is a substantial hit for what is basically a consumer trifle. A lovely consumer trifle, but with a fatal flaw that makes justifying its price difficult. Perfection is difficult, and the Rhodia Webbie isn’t perfect: its lines should extend to the end of the page and its lines should be closer to one another. If I were Steve Jobs, I’d be driven mad by these problems. Fortunately, I’m not, but it’s clear that Design.Y has noticed some of the same things Apple has. In the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, he writes: “Early on, Mike Markkula had taught Jobs to ‘impute’—to understand that people do judge a book by its cover—and therefore to make sure all the trappings and packaging of Apple signaled that there was a beautiful gem inside.” Design.Y does the same. The company even includes a sheath of extra paper with a hand-written note. I can’t help noticing that one flaw in the gem, however, that keeps me from wanting to give myself over to an otherwise shining light.

As you can probably tell, I want the notebook to be better than it is. A Japanese craftsman named Hiroshi Yoshino makes them (this also explains why their price is denominated in Yen) using “Tomoe River” paper, which the website accurately describes as “very thin and lightweight.” I wouldn’t want him to switch to the Rhodia’s tank-like paper. But something heavier and less bendable would make the Record 216 the perfect notebook.

EDIT: Unfortunately, the front and back of my notebook began to split after about five months of normal use:

And, to me, this disqualifies the Model 216 for day-to-day use; I haven’t had the problem with Rhodia Webnotebooks. Although I wish the Rhodia’s lines went to the edge of the page, and its paper is perhaps slightly too thick, I think the trade-offs—especially accounting for price—make it a better choice. A $70 notebook better be perfect. This one isn’t, and its durability is especially distressing.

* Or “Model 216,” depending on which part of the website you’re reading. Chalk this up to charming translation idiosyncrasies.

The accidentally bent page.

Product Review: The Leuchtturm 1917 notebook

The Leuchtturm 1917 is perfectly competent. It’s slightly larger than a Moleskine, when a notebook should be, if anything, slightly smaller. This is a small point. The paper quality is, to my eye and hand, indistinguishable from Moleskine’s, which in turn is very similar to Guildhall and most of the other non-Rhodia notebooks I’ve tried. It has one other annoying feature: the last 30 or so pages are perforated; this is another way of saying, “They’ll eventually fall out.” If you’re the kind of person who wants to desecrate your notebook by tearing out pages, then the Leuchtturm 1917 is for you. To be sure, perforated pages are a minor annoyance. But if you’re not trying to avoid minor annoyances, stick with Moleskines, since they’re widely available.

The only major problem with the Leuchtturm 1917 simple: it doesn’t offer any major, obvious improvements over the Moleskine. It doesn’t offer any real disadvantages, either, other than its departure from the canonical 3.5 x 5.5 size and the perforated final pages. Unlike the Quo Vadis Habana, however, the Leuchtturm 1917 isn’t so much larger that carrying it around becomes a chore.

If this review seems slight, that’s because it is—the differences between this notebook and a Moleskine are trivial. They experience the same corner tearing, although I didn’t use the Leuchtturm long enough for the tears to develop into the cover partially coming off. If you’ve used a Moleskine, you’ve already in effect used this notebook; both are decent, but neither beats the Rhodia Webbie.

More on that soon.

The new notebook stack:

In “Eight years of writing and the first busted Moleskine,” I posted a picture of the notebook stack on one of my bookshelves. It has expanded since:

The orange notebook is a Rhodia Webbie, and I discovered why notebooks should be black the hard way. The notebook was originally a lovely orange color. But riding in cargo pockets, jeans pockets, backpacks, car seats, purses (occasionally), and various other means is a sure way to attract muck. Within two weeks, the notebook simply looked dirty.

The next notebook I bought was black. Notice, however, that despite the Rhodia’s color, its corners have remained intact, unlike most of the rest.

Product Review: Guildhall Pocket Notebook

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems and from reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Guildhall Pocket Notebook’s great strength and weakness is its flexibility: it has a softer cover than most pocket notebooks and stitching that allows the notebook to easily lie flat. But its cover also bends out of shape over time, like a cardboard insert or cereal box, and the pages bend with it. Still, this is a minor problem in a largely successful notebook—one that’s better than Moleskines but not quite as good or readily available as Rhodia Webbies.

The “loose” quality to the Guildhall’s binding is pleasing—insert joke here—and the notebook is much easier to flip through than the Design.Y Record 216, which I haven’t really used because my current notebook still has space (and the Design.Y’s cost precludes it from being compared with $5 – $20 notebooks). A sewn binding means the Guildhall is unlikely to fall apart over the short to medium term; though it doesn’t feel as sturdy as a Rhodia Webbie, the Guildhall did survive many months in pockets, backpacks, suitcases, and assorted other gear without corner tears.

Mine arrived smelling like fish, although I attribute that to shipping from England rather than an inherent property of the notebook. I sent them back to UKGE for a new pair, only to have UKGE send them back to me, still smelling of fish, though not nearly as badly.

The pages had narrow lines that allow more writing per page without being cramped; there are an extra two to three lines per sheet over Rhodia’s Webbie, though the lines didn’t quite extend to the page’s edge. The cover has a pleasant feel and stitching around it; I can’t tell if the stitching is decoration or essential to holding the cover in place. The paper feels good under a pen, and there’s very little bleed through (in the picture with writing, above, the back page is covered with fountain pen ink). It’s very easy to flip through the Guildhall.

Unfortunately, most of this doesn’t matter: Exaclair, the American distributor for Guildhall, isn’t making them anymore. Christine Nusse, who works for Exaclair, sent me an e-mail saying that “the Guildhall journals are no longer available for export in the US because they were redundant with the Quo Vadis’ Habanas [. . .] and Clairefontaine’s notebooks.” To me, the Habana is quite different, but the issue is moot anyway: she also said “My understanding is that they are discontinued.” That understanding may have changed, but if it hasn’t, the notebook is gone. Some places online still list Guildhall notebooks, like The Dyslexia Shop in the U.K., but I don’t know if those retailers are getting new stock or depleting what inventory remains.

In the realm of “normal” notebooks, this is the best or second best I’ve tried, the best being the Rhodia, which I prefer only because I don’t like the cover bend. The Guildhall seems like a natural fit for the U.S., and that Exaclair chooses not to distribute it is puzzling, given its superiority over the market-leading behemoth.

Brief product review: The Quo Vadis Habana

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems, and in reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Habana’s big problem is simple: it’s not quite a pocket notebook. It’s also not quite a full-sized notebook, either, at 4″ x 6″, it’s uncomfortably in between, too large to carry around and too small for classrooms. Instead of being in the pleasant middle, they’re in the awkward middle. These shots compare it to a Moleskine and Guildhall notebook, both of which are 3.5″ x 5.5″:

The Habana is still wrapped, and that’s because of its size: too large to be portable. If it doesn’t fit in reasonably slender pockets, it might as well be a laptop or tablet. There isn’t further discussion of the paper quality or construction because the Habana has already been disqualified from competition. Which is unfortunate, because there aren’t a huge number of high-quality, appropriately sized notebooks around.

I want it to be right. It just isn’t.

EDIT: The Rhodia Webnotebook is better, although its pages obnoxiously don’t extend to the edge of each page.


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