To some people, having a notebook that you carry around in your pocket everywhere you go seems archaic. Yet there are some who do carry one around, but never actually use them, just for the sake of looking like a vintage revivalist.
But a pocket notebook has plenty of great uses, if you stick to the habit. Once again, let’s turn to history for some ideas.
During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci could be seen sauntering in the streets with a little book tied to his belt — Sometimes they were simply loose sheets of paper that he bound together in leather or vellum. “As you go about town, consistently observe, note, and consider the circumstances and behavior of men as they talk and quarrel, or laugh, or come to blows,” he wrote in his notebook.
He used his notebook to jot down ideas for his work, to make sketches, to write his famously curious to-do lists like “study the tongue of a woodpecker” or “find out why the sky is blue”, to write about fascinating scenes involving people and their emotions that he observed, and also to put into words whatever emotions he was feeling.
In his use of his notebook as a sketchbook, he honed his technical skills as an engineer by drawing mechanisms he imagined or saw. And as an artist, he sketched rough ideas and made preparatory drawings for his paintings.
In his notes for his treatise of painting, he instructed aspiring artists to make a habit of walking around town, observing people, and recording them in a portable notebook — So that they wouldn’t forget any interesting details. “Take a note of them with slight strokes in a little book which you should always carry with you,” he wrote. “The positions of the people are so infinite that the memory is incapable of retaining them, which is why you should keep these sketches as your guides.”
Charles Darwin, on the other hand, started his lifelong relationship with carrying pocket notebooks when he sailed on the HMS Beagle as a naturalist. He filled his notebooks with observations on a variety of subjects, such as botany, zoology, barometer readings, temperature, and also personal entries like finance and shopping lists. He also made notes on particular questions that he needed to dive deeper into, and also lists of the books he had read and wanted to read. And of course, his notebooks provide us a window into his development of the theory of evolution.
For Ernest Hemingway, carrying a pocket notebook suited the many facets of his life, as he jotted down notes in his favorite cafés, and in his travels and adventures — Making observations of wildlife, nature, as well as his beloved sports such as boxing and bullfighting. He stored in his notebooks many sights, smells, and sounds that would permeate into the vivid passages of his novels. Notebooks were a huge part of his daily life as well, as he used them to record his expenses, and make lists of gifts to bring home from his travels. He wrote in his memoir A Moveable Feast, “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.”
As you can see, a simple habit of using a pocket notebook is a good aid in not only your creative work, but also in your mundane affairs.
I started the habit of carrying a pencil and notebook in my pocket when I was in high school. It arose from my need to record the wise things that I heard from my Biology teacher — His life advice were always so good that I just had to write them down somewhere I could pull out and read anytime.
But since then, I’ve been using it to capture my ideas, to clarify my thoughts, to outline my articles for this website, to take note of expenses and debts, to plan my day, to make lists of books to read, documentaries or movies to watch, talks to listen to, and just stuff that I need to get from the grocery store.
I also use it to record cool things that are said by lecturers in the classroom. These notes are then transferred into my commonplace book, which is pretty much a medley of ideas. Here are some of them that I could pull out of my head :
“Why rest? One day you will rest forever.” – My Marketing lecturer’s response when I asked for a break
“Your job as an engineer is to bring change, to create different things. Otherwise technology can never progress.” – An Engineering lecturer
“Do you know what makes a good engineer? It’s that you respect and follow the process.” – Another Engineering lecturer
Maybe you’re thinking, what’s the use of keeping a notebook and pencil in your pocket when you could just use your phone? Well, you’re an adult, and you can make any decision you want.
But I personally think that keeping certain things analog instead of digital gives you more freedom to be creative, to express your thoughts in almost any way you wish — This way, you’re able to think a lot clearly as compared to being confined to the features of an app.
Also, for me, at least, sticking to analog helps limit my dependence on my phone. It feels so much better to be more present with the world around you and with the material you’re working with, so to say.
Give it a try and see how it works for you. Maybe you’ll find yourself to be an avid devotee of the pocket notebook. As Hemingway declared, “I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”