The Ultimate NotebookWed, Jul 10, 2013 in Commentary Reviews Writing
If you’re like me, you spend so much time typing on a computer that a good notebook or journal is one of life’s finer pleasures. I’ve kept a diary of my personal life for close to 30 years now, and I have a shelf full of journals. I’ve found a great many that I enjoy writing in, and choosing a different one each time is part of the fun.
But thus far, my quest for a notepad has been unsatisfying. Many notepads have loved me, but I’m sorry to say their love has been unrequited. I’ve tried all the usual things: Moleskine, loose-leaf paper, binders, what have you. But I never found something that is practical, functional, a joy to write on, and a pleasure to look at and hold. I just can’t settle into a long-term relationship with my notebook, because I haven’t met The Right One yet.
So, naturally, I decided to stage a giant contest amongst all the premium notebooks I could find by reading online reviews, searching the Internet, and visiting my local retailers. Read on, but I warn you, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars amassing a collection, and I’m not going to waste all that on a short blog post. And yes, there will be a winner at the end.
You might also be interested in my review of the ultimate pen for note-taking.
Before I review any of the notebooks, let me explain what I’m looking for.
The Perfect Notebook
My quest for the Holy Grail of notebooks began innocently enough when I happened to read that Kate Matsudaira is a notebook connoisseur and will only write on Semikolon Il Creativo notebooks with Uchida Le Pen pens. Intrigued, I included one of each in my next batch of “stuff” from Amazon.com. I immediately fell in love with the pens, but the notebook was much larger than I expected it to be—far too large to be practical as I travel and carry it hither and yon.
So what do I want?
- The size. It needs to be large enough to write on easily, leaving readable margins, without wasting a high percentage of the paper. It needs to be small enough to slip into a bag or hold in a hand with several other things; it should be neither bulky nor so small that it gets lost and slides to the bottom and gets all crumpled by other things.
- The proportions. Too tall and skinny is bad; too short and wide is bad. Something fairly standard is best, like the usual A* paper proportions.
- The thickness and number of pages. Enough to last a while. Not so many that it’s heavy or bulky in a messenger bag; not so many that if I lose it, a giant chunk of my life and professional notes is gone. There’s always some risk, but it needs to be balanced.
- The type of cover. Rigid, thick covers waste space and add weight, as well as being difficult to pack in a carry-on bag. Something springy and thin, but substantial enough to help with writing, is best.
- The binding. I write on both sides of the paper, and it needs to fold open easily and flat, be very durable, and not force me to write awkwardly when I’m writing in the center margin of the left-hand page. It should also not curl awkwardly when I’m near the first or the last page.
- The closure. I’m not a big fan of elastic closures; they get in the way more than they help.
- The paper quality. As I said, I write on both sides. It needs to resist bleed-through and be smooth and strong.
- The ruling. I like ruled notebooks, but can do all right with blank. If there’s ruling, it needs to be pretty narrow. Nothing wastes more paper and annoys me more than too-wide ruling. Any ruling also shouldn’t force or encourage me to leave too much of a margin.
- The index, table of contents, helper charts, page numbers, and so on. Some of these things are wonderful in moderation; a table of contents and page numbers, for example, are a delight. I can quickly index a notebook after using it, and it becomes immensely more useful for reference. Do I need 12 pages of conversion tables and timezone maps? Not really.
- The bookmarks or page markers. I prefer a silken ribbon for journals, but for notebooks I actually prefer none; my favorite is these magnetic owl page markers.
- The design. This is the most subjective and intangible thing of all. The design needs to be professional, a little bit creative, and inspiring. It should make me feel like an artist as well as an engineer. If I may stereotype for a moment, the Germans perhaps err on the side of being too mechanical, the Swiss can sometimes feel as if everything is meant to be a coffee-table conversation piece, and the Americans can be deathly boring. I want something that makes me feel light and nimble, practical, yet … a craftsman, somehow.
Is that really so much to ask?
After assessing a number of books, including some extras provided by my wonderful and resourceful wife, I’ve realized there are really three categories. Regardless of what a notebook or journal is designed for, in my mind it ends up in one of these, even if it’s supposed to be something else:
Journals. Journals tend to have a bit larger margins, may offer fold-over magnetic covers or other clasps, and are usually mid-sized. They often have beautiful designs on the covers, but are relatively plain inside. If notebooks were coffee, these would be a latte.
Moleskines and imitations. These come in several sizes but generally have elastic loop clasps, minimal features such as a single pocket inside the back cover, and are generally boring and middle-of-the-road in nearly every way. As coffee, these are a cup of Americano at best.
The exceptional notebooks. These vary more widely and have a lot of personality and special features. These are espressos, macchiatos, and cappuccinos.
And now, let’s get right down to brass tacks!
Allow me to repeat the photo from before:
From the left, and roughly in order of size, these are:
- An Italian leatherette journal by Markings
- A Semikolon Il Creativo, large
- A Quo Vadis Habana
- An iPad for size perspective ;-)
- A PaperBlanks journal
- A Peter Pauper Press journal
- Another PaperBlanks journal
- A Mead Cambridge notebook
- A deconstructed journal by Studio Oh!
- A Whitelines Squared notebook
- A Clairefontaine notebook
- A Barnes & Noble journal refill
- A Leuchtturm 1917 notebook
- A Moleskine notebook
- A Chameleon Like notebook
- A Semikolon Il Creativo, small
- A (small) Chameleon Like notebook
- A teNues CoolNotes notebook
- You’ll notice some new additions to this post, at the end, which are not pictured above.
Whew! That’s a lot of reviewing to do. I’ll go through them [mostly] in order. I’ve uploaded hi-resolution photos; click on thumbnails to see the bigger picture. In some cases I’ve linked through to Amazon, when a product is available there. Some others I never buy online, or can’t find online, although you may be able to find them if you search. You can see more photos of the notebooks there. I’ve focused mostly on the inside of the books, but there are good photos online of the exterior too.
Italian leatherette journal by Markings
This is a wonderful journal that I’m going to enjoy filling up. Though the design is understated, and I tend to like some eye candy on my journals, the cover is supple and has a suede feel, and there are enough pages to be a good journal. (Unlike my notebooks, I like a diary to last a good while.) The paper is smooth and heavy, the ruling and margins are nice, and overall it feels great.
As a notebook, I can’t really use it. It’s too large, too thick, and too heavy to carry around. The teacup in the photo is a bit oversized, so it is actually a bit larger than it looks.
192 pages, 10.25 x 7.5 x .75 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Target for $12.99.
Semikolon Il Creativo, large
This is the notebook that started this whole quest. It’s perhaps the most “designed” of all of them, with an elaborate perpetual calendar on every page in German, French, and English. It also has several pages of table of contents and calendar overview at the front, and sheets of stickers and labels are included. I immediately wanted to label everything in sight. The notebook made me feel like putting my whole life in order, and I knew I’d feel great about it if I did.
The main problem is that it’s way too big for me to carry around.
I want something a lot slimmer, to start with. The cover is nice and flexible, and there are other nice features, but I can’t get past the bulk. I also have a gripe with the ruling, which is too wide. I’m forced to write way too spaced-out, or to write two lines per rule, which is annoying and cramped.
The paper is a bit coarse, almost ridged, and I am pretty sure that this texture is intentional. It should be great for pencils, but is not as good for the pens that I use.
This notebook is designed for notes, but I’ll use it as a journal. I wonder if I’ll write less about emotional things and dreams, and more about analytical things?
304 pages, 10 x 7.75 x 1.0 inches. Rule width: .375 inches. Bought at Amazon for $14.97.
Quo Vadis Habana
This notebook is a big step down in size and bulk from the previous two. It’s a much more practical size to carry around, and it has the best cover of all of them, in my opinion. The cover isn’t quite rigid; it’s flexible enough not to be annoying and uncomfortable in a thin bag with other things crammed in. The paper is top-notch quality – silky smooth and creamy.
The corners are rounded, which is always appreciated in a notebook. And, the notebook and the paper are made in the USA, from certified sustainable forests.
The ruling might extend a little too close to the margins, but although the book doesn’t open completely flat, it comes very close; close enough that there shouldn’t be a problem with the margins.
All in all, a very nice notebook, and one of the top contenders for certain.
Note: this is now my favorite notebook and I doubt I’ll change from using it. I can’t say enough about how amazing the paper is. It’s gorgeous, smooth, doesn’t bleed through. It feels wonderful and writes beautifully.
These are my favorite journals. They have a ribbon marker, a magnetic clasp cover, a huge variety of beautiful cover designs to choose from, and they’re easy to find at Barnes & Noble. I’ve probably bought over a dozen of these. It’s great when there’s a sale; I’ll buy several at a time.
The paper isn’t quite as nice as I’d want in a notebook, but it’s great for journaling. It is slightly rough. The journals are plain inside, with no decorations, and a small note on the inside cover about the pattern reproduced on the outside. For example, I’m currently writing in the one shown closed, and this cover is inspired by a Persian Safavid-style design from centuries ago.
I wouldn’t use these for note-taking. They’re a little too bulky, the ruling is a little too wide, and the covers are too rigid.
288 pages, 9 x 7 x .875 inches. Rule width: .318 inches. Bought at Barnes & Noble for $18.95.
Peter Pauper Press journal
This journal is certainly in the same class as the PaperBlanks journals. It’s about the same size, and also has beautiful art on the cover; in this case, a Van Gogh. The paper is a little heavier, and there’s no clasp to hold the cover shut. It has slightly fewer pages and is a little thinner.
192 pages, 9 x 7.5 x .75 inches. Rule width: .318 inches. Bought at Amazon for $13.49.
Mead Cambridge notebook
This notebook is a great find, in my opinion. It’s a good size, is thin and flexible with a semi-rigid cover, has trimmed corners to avoid dog-earing, and has nice paper. It’s all business, but is just sophisticated enough to feel good, too.
As you can see, I’ve chosen a variant that has an extra column on the right for notes to be set aside. I’m going to give this a try because I often find myself going back and cramming cross-references or additional information into the margins. There is a variant without this extra column, however.
The ruling is a nice width – just right for me. The color might be a little too dark, though. It could be lighter, or even use light dots, like a signature line, and it’d be nicer in my opinion.
The downsides: the binding doesn’t quite open flat, though it comes very close, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be all that durable, though the notepad is thin enough that it shouldn’t have a long heavy-duty life to wear it out. The ruling doesn’t have any margin in the center of the binding. This might seem like a nitpick, but without that guide I find myself cramming my pen into the crevice when writing on the left page, and having trouble with an even left-margin when writing on the right page.
All in all, one of the top choices for a notebook, due to its design, practical size, and low price.
160 pages, 8.625 x 6.75 x .4375 inches. Rule width: .220 inches. Bought at Target for $8.95.
Deconstructed journal by Studio Oh!
This journal is perhaps the most versatile of the notebooks and journals I’ve shown here, because it could easily be a very respectable notebook as well. Its binding is the most attention-grabbing feature. Take a look:
The journal opens absolutely flat, without a hint of resistance. This is the flattest-opening notebook I’ve ever seen. Will the binding hold up? On close inspection, it does seem pretty well-bound. I suspect it’ll last.
The cover is quite rigid, the corners are rounded, the paper is silky and smooth though perhaps a bit thin, and overall it feels really nice. The only points against it, as far as a notebook, are the ruling width and the stiff covers. It’s also a little heavy, now that I think about it. Still, it’ll easily be a great journal, and could be a very nice notebook too.
192 pages, 8.625 x 6.5 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Amazon for $13.85; also available from Barnes & Noble.
Whitelines Squared notebook
This premium-quality notebook has a really unusual feature: instead of white paper with dark lines, it has slightly gray paper with white lines. The idea is that this is less distracting and will glare and contrast less, and that what you write will stand out, rather than conflicting with the lines. I chose a “graph paper” or grid, instead of a lined/ruled notebook.
It’s a nice size (A5, perfect!), has really nice paper, and is made with a C02-neutral process. It’s sharply designed and utilitarian, with a black cover that has a single orange horizontal stripe. There’s no arguing that it’s not a high-end notebook.
The downsides? The cover is rigid, and the corners are squared instead of rounded. The binding doesn’t open flat; in fact, it doesn’t really even come close, and this will be a nuisance. Although the white-lined feature seems nice, I wish it didn’t extend all the way to the edge of the paper. The grid feature does give some guidance for margins, but I foresee myself getting greedy in the margins accidentally.
I’m going to have to say that a couple of the others are nicer, because of their binding and ruling with margins.
200 pages, 8.5 x 6 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .197 inches. Bought at Amazon for $11.95.
This notebook is practical and functional, with a plain black cover that’s flexible, and rounded corners. Inside there’s no decoration or jazz; just basic, plain ruled paper.
The paper, though, is a highlight. This is Clairefontaine’s famous high-quality paper, and I’ve used it before. It’s really nice quality.
The notebook is also a great size: not too thick, not too large (A5 again), easy to carry.
Downside? There are no margins, and the ruling is wide for my taste. The binding doesn’t open as flat as I’d like. Still, a very good choice for a notebook.
192 pages, 8.125 x 5.875 x .4375 inches. Rule width: .3125 inches. Bought at Amazon for $10.99.
Barnes & Noble journal refill
I grabbed this journal refill from the shelves at B/N for one reason: it’s simple and inexpensive. It’s designed to replace the interior of some kind of journal, I’m not sure what exactly. The paper is a high-quality Italian ivory, and the cover is heavy card stock. The binding opens very flat, more so than many of the notebooks I’ve mentioned above.
On the downside, the corners are not rounded, and there is a decoration at the bottom of each page, which shouts out “journal!” and not “professional notes!” Still, it’s a better choice for notes than some of the notepads I’ve bought.
224 pages, 8.25 x 5.75 x .625 inches. Rule width: .26 inches. Bought at Barnes & Noble for $7.95.
Leuchtturm 1917 notebook
This Leuchtturm 1917 notebook has a very analytical, practical feel. It has some great standout features, too, such as page numbers on every page, and the paper is obviously good quality. It also has some nice additions, such as stickers for labeling and archiving, and the binding is very nice, although it doesn’t quite open flat easily.
Other than the added touches such as page numbers and high-quality paper, you could easily mistake it for a Moleskine if you weren’t a notebook snob. The cover is plain black, with a bit more flex than a Moleskine cover, rounded corners (and the pages are rounded too). As soon as you open it and examine it, though, you see why their motto is “details make all the difference.” It’s obviously a step up in quality from a Moleskine. For example, although the ruling is essentially the same in design and width, it’s much lighter than the Moleskine’s obtrusive, coarse rules.
249 pages, 5.75 x 8.25 x .6875 inches. Rule width: .236 inches. Bought at Amazon for $15.99.
Ah, Moleskine, how we love to love you and pay a premium for you. Yet you’re so… boring. Your paper isn’t all that great, your cover is uninspiring, your heavy ruling goes all the way across the page with no margin, your elastic droops and sags. Goodness knows why you’ve gotten a reputation for being great, because you’re not the best. Of course, lots of people are making great things with Moleskine; here’s some cropped art via Steve Loya:
Bottom line: Moleskine notebooks are functional, with a nice binding, but you can get a much better notebook for less.
240 pages, 8.25 x 5.25 x .625 inches. Rule width: .236 inches. Bought at Amazon for $15.41.
Chameleon Like medium notebook
This is essentially another Moleskine look-alike, although it’s a size smaller and has a tan cover instead of black. The binding is actually nicer, though the paper is not as nice. Overall, nothing remarkable to see here.
It’s at this size and form factor that the notebooks definitely start to get too small for me. A small, rigid notebook like this isn’t the easiest thing to carry or write on, and you end up wasting a lot of space unless you cram your writing really close to the edges of the pages, which makes everything unpleasant.
192 pages, 7 x 5 x .625 inches. Rule width: .278 inches. Source: freebie at a conference, though apparently they can be had for about $4.99.
Semikolon Il Creativo notebook
This is the small version of the large Il Creativo mentioned above. When I saw that the large one was too big for me, I tried to buy a medium one, but it was unavailable from any sellers I could find, so I tried the small one. Unfortunately, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this one is Really Too Small. It’s cramped to write in. It’s just as thick and blocky as the large size. It has too many pages. And it has that annoyingly wide ruling.
I wanted to like it. But I just can’t. I wish I’d been able to get a medium-sized one, but frankly I wouldn’t have enjoyed it all that much either. Alas!
304 pages, 5.625 x 4.375 x 1 inch. Rule width: .375 inches. Bought at Amazon for $8.37.
Small Chameleon Like notebook
This is just the smaller version of the above Chameleon Like notebook. Way too small for my taste.
teNues CoolNotes notebook
Ditto – this notebook is another mini-Moleskine-lookalike.
The Spark Notebook
This isn’t just a notebook, it’s a yearly planner. The amazing Kate Matsudaira created this and crowdfunded it in 2014. You should absolutely sign up for the next edition. I bought one as a gift for my wife.
Baron Fig Confidant
The Baron Fig Confidant is a lovingly hand-designed notebook made for those who are serious about getting back to the basics, appreciating craftsmanship, and writing on a book made for enduring quality.
Baron Fig sent me a complimentary copy. It’s very nice! As I understand it, the next editions will all incorporate feedback from users such as me and you.
The feedback I gave them:
Thanks for the notebook! Feedback thus far - paper seems nice. I’m not a big dot-grid guy. I like a slightly taller page, but the width is nice. I also like thinner books so they fit in my bag without bulking it so much, and more flexible cover, for the same reason. The woven cover is slightly unpleasant for my fingers somehow, a little reminiscent of burlap bags I handled a lot as a kid that chewed up my skin a lot. Lastly, to truly nit-pick, the edges of the pages have a slight curl from cutting in one direction, which feels sharp in one direction and slippery the other. The lie-flat binding is good. Overall, a great notebook!
We agreed that I may need a therapist to help me overcome my burlap issues from childhood. If you know anyone who specializes in inner-child-burlap memories, let me know.
Shinola Large Hard Linen Journal
This notebook is similar to the Baron Fig in that it has a bit more bulk, stiffness, and coarseness than I prefer. However, if you’re an engineer/architect/surveyor type or if you just prefer that form factor, it’s also very nice indeed.
Maruman Mnemosyne Special Memo Notepad
I know some people who love these notebooks, but I haven’t owned one myself:
There is my life before these beautiful landscape notebooks, and my life after: http://t.co/NMj7AN89FH After is better.— John Allspaw (@allspaw) March 1, 2015
Do you want a journal? I think you can hardly go wrong with the Peter Pauper or the PaperBlanks. The Studio Oh! is a great choice too, especially because it’s actually a nicer grade of book and is a little less pricey. It isn’t as beautiful, though. On the larger side, the Markings leatherette is a hefty journal that will last a long time, though it’s plain too. And if you want a journal that screams “Swiss watch designer’s journal!” then maybe you’d like the Semikolon Il Creativo.
Do you want a Moleskine? Then buy one. Do you want something like it but better quality? Then get the Leuchtturm, hands down. It’s easily the nicest thing in the Moleskine class. I also like the Clairefontaine a lot, and if you’re looking for something a little different, you might like the Whitelines.
Do you want a big, bulky, analytical notebook? That’s the Semikolon Il Creativo for you again. Organize thyself!
But if you’re like me and you really want a compact, flexible, practical notebook that slips easily into a messenger bag, opens flat, has nice paper, is slim and inexpensive – then I’m leaning towards recommending the Quo Vadis Habana or the Mead Cambridge Premium Notebook, depending on your taste. Note that I can’t find the Cambridge online, but if you’re near a Target it’s probably easy to find. I might go back and buy a half dozen or so, just in case that turns out not to be true!
Update: alas, I can no longer find the Cambridge anywhere. So sad. I’ve been using the Quo Vadis exclusively for the last several books I’ve bought. I’ve switched from lined to blank and bought them in bulk from Writers Bloc.
In general, the ultimate notebook for me is 80-100 sheets of paper or 160-200 pages (I’ve listed pages above, to make everything consistent), an A5 size, and has pretty minimal features – no need for a ribbon or an elastic strap – just nice-quality paper, a slim and flexible design, and the right ruling and margins.
You might also be interested in my review of the ultimate pen for note-taking.
Here are my favorites in one photo. The rest is up to you. Happy writing, drawing, designing, sketching, scheduling, and organizing!
I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and many open-source tools for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB.