When I travel—especially if I’m on a major international trip—I always carry a PDA in my pocket so that I can record my observations, keep track of my schedule and contact information, and have other important facts close at hand. The model I’ve chosen has no Search feature, it’s very awkward to back up, and as for syncing with a computer—well, I might as well just type in all the information manually. On the other hand, it never crashes or runs out of power, it has a high-contrast display, its handwriting recognition is flawless, and it was even featured in a recent issue of Wired magazine as just the kind of gadget a forward-thinking geek might want to carry. On top of all that, the price is right—less than 10 bucks. It’s a Moleskine notebook, a legendary design that is rapidly becoming the standard against which all paper notebooks are judged. It’s the only notebook I know of that has a cult following.
Open and Shut Case
I first encountered these little books at a local shop several years ago, and was immediately drawn to the design. An insert in the shrink-wrapping mentioned that it was a favorite of Bruce Chatwin, a travel writer with whom I was familiar mainly from his book In Patagonia. Chatwin, so the story goes, always bought moleskine notebooks at a certain Paris stationery shop and packed a great many of them on each of his trips. But in 1986, the last moleskine manufacturer went out of business, leaving the stationery shop unable to fill Chatwin’s most recent order for 100. Chatwin died in 1989, but in 1998, Italian company Modo & Modo once again began manufacturing moleskine notebooks. Although Modo & Modo is not related in any way to the original French manufacturer, their marketing draws heavily on quotes from Chatwin and assures the buyer that their design was based carefully on the one he had been so fond of. Other famous creative types who, according to Modo & Modo, used a Moleskine (or, at least, a notebook of that basic design) include Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and Hemingway.
What makes a Moleskine notebook so special? For starters, it’s just the right size—about 9 x 14cm (3.5 x 5.5 inches) and 13mm (0.5 inches) thick. The binding is cardboard covered with oilcloth (a fabric treated with oil or a synthetic resin to make it waterproof), so it’s quite durable. The pages are sewn, not glued, so they will lie flat when the book is opened; a cloth ribbon bookmark is permanently attached. There’s a handy expandable pocket in the back and an elastic band that holds the whole thing shut. Any one of these details individually may be unremarkable, but the combination makes this design incredibly useful. It’s not inexpensive as notebooks go, but neither is it cheap. If a PDA is a “personal digital assistant,” this one certainly lives up to its name: it assists your fingers quite ably.
A Mole by Any Other Name
The name “Moleskine” has been a source of some confusion. As nearly as I can determine, the derivation is as follows. There’s an ordinary English word, moleskin, which, as you might guess, originally referred to the skin of a mole. About a century ago, the term was extended to apply to a type of cotton fabric that looked and felt a bit like natural moleskin. Strictly speaking, the oilcloth that’s used for covering notebooks is not moleskin—it isn’t fuzzy—but for whatever reason, that’s what it’s called. When moleskin migrated into French, it picked up an e on the end, which would have given it the pronunciation “mo-lə-SKEEN.” Be that as it may, the name is now a trademark of the Italian company Modo & Modo, which complicates its pronunciation for us poor foreigners.
A lot of Web sites (including that of Moleskine USA), in a misguided attempt to be helpful, say that the word is pronounced “mole-a-SKEEN-a.” Well, that could be approximately right, depending on whether you interpret the a sounds as being a long a (correct) or a schwa sound (incorrect). As a result of this ambiguity, other Web sites that have attempted to be even more helpful by using a phonetic alphabet have assumed the schwa pronunciation, so that it comes out roughly as “mole-ə-SKEEN-ə.” But that doesn’t follow the pronunciation rules of English, French, or Italian. (Despite the word’s English-by-way-of-French origin, Moleskine is now a nominally Italian term, and the final e is never a schwa sound in Italian. It’s more like eh, which is almost—but not quite—the English long a sound.) So let’s settle this once and for all: in Italian, it’s “mo-leh-SKEE-neh”; in French, it’s “mo-lə-SKEEN”; and in English, it’s “those little notebooks with the oilcloth covers.”
The simple original notebook has spawned a multitude of specialized designs. You can get a Moleskine notebook in small or large sizes. Ruled or unruled. Squared or rounded corners. Configured as a diary or address book, lined for musical notation, or made with special paper that’s ideal for sketches or watercolors. And so on. In all, there are over 30 designs, but I like the original the best: pocket-sized, ruled, no other bells or whistles. Its beauty is in its minimalist simplicity.
Even if Modo & Modo had nothing to do with the original French moleskine supplier, and even if their invocations of Chatwin and other writers and artists are nothing more than a cheap marketing ploy, the Moleskine notebook has developed a huge following of rabid fans. I’m proud to be one of them, and I take pleasure in committing my important thoughts to such a high-quality repository. After all, little things mean a lot. —Joe Kissell
No moles were harmed in the creation of this article.
An update: According to this article, Moleskine notebooks are once again (as of mid-2006) being made and distributed by a French-owned company!