Notebook Reviews

For all the dorks like myself who obsess about notebooks, this post is for you.

Full disclosure: I tend to be partial to notebooks of the pocket-sized, reporter-style, durable, flexible, wirebound and blank variety, but I use and sample all kinds. To my mind there are two types of notebooks: portable and desktop. Portable notebooks should be easy to carry around and fit comfortably in your pocket. Which pocket you use, and therefore which notebook, can depend on the season. In the warm months I require a slim, flexible notebook for my back pocket. In the winter, a harder-backed notebook can go into my inside coat pocket. Many notebooks that are marketed as portable—hello, Moleskine—are actually desktop notebooks in my opinion because they don’t fit comfortably in your pocket. They have their place.


Moleskine
Moleskine

Let’s get this out of the way: Moleskines are vastly overrated. Sure, they look nice but how functional are they really? I like a strong notebook that I can bend back. Moleskines can be laid flat but won’t bend over backwards for you. They don’t fit comfortably in your pocket. And for those who have bought into the Moleskine brand mythology, note that Hemingway, Picasso and Matisse did not in fact use Moleskines. Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman and countless bloggers do, to some folks’ dismay. Black Cover is an entire blog dedicated to uncovering superior Moleskine alternatives.

Pluses: Pretty. Moderately hackable.

Minuses: Unoriginal. Low-quality paper that can’t handle fountain pens, so pen nerds shun them (pen reviews is another post).


Muji
Muji notebooks
Photo by Guccio

Muji—short for Mujirushi Ryohin, or “brandless quality goods”—has been taking the American notebook-nerd market by storm. As they say on their website, “Muji, the brand, is rational, and free of agenda, doctrine and ‘isms.’ The Muji concept derives from us continuously asking, ‘What is best from an individual’s point of view?'” Designer types are entranced by Muji’s intense minimalism. Their chrononotebook makes people giddy.

Pluses: Free of artifice. Also cheap! Many of their notebooks are $1.

Minuses: Very few. Available in New York at the MoMA Store, Muji Soho and inside the New York Times Building.


Rhodia
Rhodia notebooks

Rhodia is an iconic French brand of notebook whose design has been unchanged since the 1930s.

Pluses: Striking. Orange. Endorsed by poet-blogger Ron Silliman.

Minuses: Too clunky for portable use.


Apica
Apica notebook
Photo by fuddmain

The tagline on this Japanese brand of notebooks says it all: “MOST ADVANCED QUALITY GIVES BEST WRITING FEATURES & GIVES SATISFACTION TO YOU.” Apica notebooks have a devoted cult following.

Pluses: Ultra high-quality paper.

Minuses: Their portable model, the CD5, is a bit too small for serious note-taking.


Miquelrius
Paper-based time management with a Miquelrius notebook
Photo by Dave Gray

Barcelona-based Miquelrius notebooks first came to my attention as the platform for Bill Westerman’s paper-based time management software, above.

Pluses: Like Moleskine but much more flexible, with higher quality paper.

Minuses: Pages won’t lay flat. Owners of the most annoying website in the world.


Tyler Bender
Tyler Bender Book Co.
Tyler Bender’s handmade notebooks, made out of old hardcover books, sell out fast on Etsy and for good reason. They’re one-of-a-kind, can hide well on any bookshelf and are made of fascinating things.

Pluses: See above.

Minuses: Hard to come by. I recommend subscribing to his shop’s feed if you want in on the next batch.


Ecoteca
Ecoteca notebook
Photo by Myopia Pix

Ecoteca was a sturdy and stylish Portuguese brand of notebook that now appears to be defunct.

Pluses: Rounded corners.

Minuses: Impossible to find.


Field Notes
Field Notes

Field Notes made a splash last year on the back-to-paper and get-things-done (GTD) scene, when they started showing up on blogs like Lifehacker. Launched by Coudal Partners, some people find the brand a bit cloying.

Pluses: Pocket-friendly. Heavy paperstock. Futura typeface.

Minuses: Seemingly designed with Urban Outfitters in mind. Tries too hard. Staplebound.


Rite in the Rain® Field-Flex Notebooks
Rite in the Rain notebooks

My current favorite, Rite in the Rain notebooks are 1.) sturdy as hell and 2.) can be used in the shower, where many people get their best ideas. Seriously, recommended.

Pluses: Waterproof authenticity.

Minuses: None.


Ciak
Ciak notebook
Photo by Brittanie Shey

Ciak is an Italian brand of notebook determined to take on Moleskine.

Pluses: Closes with a sensible horizontal elastic band.

Minuses: Too thick for portable use (twice the thickness of a Moleskine). A bit overzealous in their marketing.


Kokuyo Fieldnote
Kokuyo notebook
Photo by hawkexpress

The brand of choice for Japanese productivity junkies, Kokuyo makes hyper-functional notebooks for engineers and surveyors.

Pluses: Pocket-size. High-quality paper. Durable green cover.

Minuses: Only available in Japan.


Stifflexible by Mazzuoli
The original Stifflexible
Photo by Black Cover

Hailed by some as the perfect notebook, the Stifflexible was the inspiration behind the Black Cover blog, for whom they were resurrected after being discontinued. Two built-in creases on the front and back covers allow this handsome Italian notebook to be flipped through and searched without opening it. According to legend, Giuliano Mazzuoli got the idea after finding a book from the 1700s in a Florentine library with a similar design.

Pluses: Stiff yet flexible. Pages open flat. Back flap can be used as a bookmark. Made entirely in Italy. Not a Moleskine.

Minuses: The newer versions don’t have the creamy paper or colored page edges of old.

32 Comments

  1. Wow. I am going to bookmark the s**t out of this one. Thanks, Sean.

    Posted by kristen on 02 Sep 2008 at 9:42 am
  2. Miquelrius’ American site, while nothing special, is less annoying than the gimmick-laden main site:

    http://www.shopmiquelrius.com/

    I love these notebooks: flexible, indestructible, and with 300 pages. But I must not be alone: some models are listed as out-of-stock.

    Posted by archambeau on 05 Sep 2008 at 7:05 am
  3. Super list, really well done.

    Posted by doane on 05 Sep 2008 at 10:06 am
  4. Huh, I use my fountain pen in my moleskine all the time and have never had any bleed-through problems. For sheer paper pleasure, though, I haven’t found anything that can top Clairefontaine.

    Posted by Sarah on 05 Sep 2008 at 11:15 am
  5. Never a problem with fountain pen & the mole

    Posted by ekh on 05 Sep 2008 at 11:05 pm
  6. Seems a bit unfair to knock Field Notes for “trying too hard” — which is as meaningless a phrase as there is.

    Regardless, I agree with most of your reviews. One thing I like about some of the Moleskines is the section of removable pages (those come in handy). I use only one side of the paper, so it’s important to note that for me any bleedthrough hasn’t contaminated the next sheet. Even when it doesn’t literally bleed (which it usually doesn’t with my F and XF fountain pens), the pages are pretty translucent.

    I love the larger Apica notebooks– they all have great paper and the perfect lines.

    Finally, there is one potential problem with the “write in the rain” notebooks (if they are the same as the ones I use)– mine have “indestructible” pages and they aren’t kidding… they are literally impossible to tear off without mangling the wire binding. Kind of embarrassing when you go to give that hot barista your number and you can’t tear it off :)

    Posted by Chris Lott on 07 Sep 2008 at 1:45 pm
  7. Wonderful list! I love Apica. My only problem now is that they were normally half off at a local stationary store, which as since stopped carrying them, forcing me to pay full price now.

    Posted by Emily on 07 Sep 2008 at 3:37 pm
  8. I’ve been using some of the small Muji notebooks—the equivalent to the Moleskin Cahiers series—and like them very much. The fact that they’re dirt-cheap doesn’t do any harm, either.

    Posted by Rob on 08 Sep 2008 at 7:34 am
  9. I agree with Sarah on the Clairefontaine notebooks. Great paper, funky plaid covers, and cool sizes available.

    Posted by Beckie on 08 Sep 2008 at 7:35 pm
  10. Wow never knew there were so many different types of notebooks!

    Posted by Arnold - Mr.Gadget on 10 Sep 2008 at 6:59 am
  11. I love notebooks too. For me it’s really important that they can be bent over backwards.
    An interesting solution for those who are not looking for quality but for cheapness e this free notebook: http://www.pocketmod.com/

    I didn’t know that Portuguese brand, Ecoteca, and I’m really sorry it’s not available anymore…

    Posted by Filipa on 11 Sep 2008 at 9:48 am
  12. notebook porn…….delicious stuff……..love the look of the Ciak books and Rhodia as always……

    Posted by manuel on 14 Sep 2008 at 7:11 pm
  13. Argh! How could you tempt us like that, with the photo of the Portuguese notebook no longer available!! But let me speak up for Rhodia, the smallest size of which is not too unwieldy to stuff in a back pocket.

    Posted by SuperWeed on 14 Sep 2008 at 7:26 pm
  14. Great wrap-up!

    Posted by 3x5er on 17 Sep 2008 at 12:41 pm
  15. Cant wait for the pen review!

    Posted by Eric on 19 Sep 2008 at 9:06 pm
  16. You left off the best of the bunch in my estimation. The small Hand-book sketch books. They’re far superior to moleskins and the best books if you want to make sketches and washes along with your writing.

    The construction of these books (in three sizes and four colors (including black) are spartan but well made. And the cost is a totally relevant pleasure. Unlike Moleskines, you’re not gouged for a well made book.

    Best of all, the weight of the paper inside is hefty and strong enough for pen, pencil, and light wash. I love them and have given up on any of the other pretenders.

    You can see them on Dick Blick’s art supply website.
    http://www.dickblick.com/zz118/69/

    You really should check these out and update your list.

    Posted by Wondermachine on 21 Sep 2008 at 4:47 pm
  17. Wondermachine,

    Those Hand Books do look nice.

    Posted by Sean on 21 Sep 2008 at 6:41 pm
  18. I’ve reviewed the Hand*Book here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/biffybeans/2121168888/

    I say, don’t waste your money….

    Posted by Biffybeans on 25 Sep 2008 at 10:37 am
  19. love this review.

    Posted by Lilly Rose on 17 Oct 2008 at 1:19 pm
  20. I am very impressed by your journal overview. Couple of things I would note. I like Moleskin’s new line of cheaper journals that come in packages of three shrinkwrapped together. In regards to Muji, I use a fountain pen, so I use their art notebooks which absorb the ink well. Besides having the right size (somewhere around the size of a paperback book), for me, it’s necessary to have blank pages. So, that takes a lot of journals out of the running.

    Posted by SJ on 17 Nov 2008 at 8:09 pm
  21. Fantastic. Never knew about these things. Thank you.

    Posted by Siddharth on 18 Nov 2008 at 1:36 am
  22. Sean, I love that you mentioned Tyler Bender in this post. I own one of his hard-to-come-by unique reconstructed books (with an amazing title to the effect of “Crime & Insanity in England” nonetheless). However, the book itself is so beautiful that I cannot bring myself to write in it. It just sits on a shelf, and I take it down every so often to carefully admire its loveliness. More an art object to be cherished than a practical, functional notebook (for me, at least).

    I’ve recently come to covet Doane Paper notebooks, which are pocket-sized and feature a clever overlaid combination of grid + lines. Similar to, but a small step beyond the pocket-sized Moleskine Cahier grid or lined softcover, in my opinion. http://doanepaper.com/

    Posted by lauren e. on 05 Dec 2008 at 3:46 am
  23. Not nearly often enough do I happen on a page that’s truly inspiring. This is one of them — post and also many comments, and all those links…

    Very well done, and even if some of the info proves a bit out of date two years after the fact, who cares: any writing that feeds my obsessive fervor for pen and ink makes me feel less alone. If that sounds like an ironic exaggeration — it isn’t.

    Thanks!

    Posted by Jon R. on 18 Feb 2010 at 2:22 pm
  24. Thanks, Jon, for the best comment ever :)

    Posted by Sean on 18 Feb 2010 at 3:36 pm
  25. Hi, I was wondering if anyone knows what notebook Leonard and Sheldon are using in the show The Big Bang Theory?

    Posted by ck on 21 Mar 2010 at 12:29 pm
  26. hi there

    when looking for a professional stationary notebook, I stumbled across this article and the blog. Great links and great tips, thanks a lot.
    Maybe this link to the German manufacturer of custom made notebooks “Brandbook” might be helpful for some of you too: http://www.brandbok.de
    As you navigate through their website you will find thousands of options to create a notebook that fits exactly what you’re looking for. I friend of mine had ordered their new, very own edition of a picture notebook (they call it SWOP book (sketch and write on pictures)) and told me about their services, check it out.

    Posted by Sunny on 20 Jul 2011 at 6:20 am
  27. Sorry, got the webaddress wrong, here you go:

    http://www.brandbook.de/

    Posted by Sunny on 20 Jul 2011 at 8:15 am
  28. It is nice to see competition in the notebook field.
    Good Review!

    Posted by Sarah on 29 Nov 2011 at 6:37 am
  29. I just bought a Whitelines notebook and I really like it. I was actually looking for a Rhodia notebook, couldn’t find one, found Whitelines and decided to try it.

    Plus: Love the darker background with white lines. Also, no carbon footprint, super bonus. Pretty easy to get, sold at Hobby Lobby. Also comes in quadrile rule.

    Cons: A bit pricey.

    Posted by Tim on 16 Dec 2011 at 11:36 am
  30. Someone was just telling me about Whitelines recently. Need to take one for a spin.

    Posted by Sean on 16 Dec 2011 at 11:42 am
  31. For us notebook snobs, take a look at Miro notebooks. They have pop colored-edged notebooks, flexi cover and paper notebooks that fit in your pocket perfectly. Check out the lined versions, you’ll like the different layout.
    http://www.remembermiro.com

    Posted by Tessa on 14 Feb 2012 at 12:28 pm
  32. In the Kokuyo Fieldnote photo what in the name of all that’s holy is going on with that guy’s ( or gal’s ) wrist? Has he been holding that book for like 72 hours?

    Posted by Alan O'Brien on 01 Oct 2012 at 4:46 am