The Notebook: A Journey Through Time

What's not to love about notebooks?  There's something positively delightful about the feel of a pen on paper, isn't there? The way good black pens dance across the pages of lined paper, or the pages of a beautiful dot grid notebook, is simply marvellous. Scribbling away helps to cement important lessons in our noggins, and your note book, whether it be A5 size or the slightly grander B5 size, is just the ticket for getting your life organised. 

From da Vinci to Einstein, the notebook has been a silent partner to some of the greatest minds in history. It’s a simple, yet profound object that has journeyed alongside humanity for centuries.  Its evolution from a practical tool to an icon of creativity and personal expression is a testament to its enduring value.  Indeed, it has mirrored changes in technology, culture and the way we record and share information.  In an age dominated by screens and digital devices, the humble notebook reminds us of the power of pen and paper - a simple yet profound medium for capturing the human spirit.

In fact, we could look at note books as being a little like the Swiss Army pen knives of the literary world; they are a useful and multi-functional tool.  Artists used them as sketch books to perfect their craft, turning the world around them into stunning works of art. Cooks scribbled down recipes, poets penned ballads, and others kept prayers.  In fact, a personalised notebook, filled with ballads, notes and personal musings is a bit like a personalised diary – a fabulous, analogue treasure; one you can keep and look through, over and over again.  

But why, you ask, do we still cling to these charming relics in our digital age? Well, it turns out that scribbling in a notebook, especially those with black paper or working in a dotted notebook, is not just therapeutic; it's a brain booster! Keeping a journal has been medically proven to help those suffering from ADHD, keep the blues at bay and thoughts in order. The tactile joy of pen and paper helps with 'embodied cognition'.  In short, things you want to remember, stick….when you physically write them down.

With the publication of The Notebook: A History of Thinking on Paper’ by Roland Allen – which is winning plaudits everywhere (Waterstones and New Statesman ‘Best Book of 2023’ and Spectator ‘Book of the Year 2023’) - we thought now might be a good time to explore the fascinating timeline of the notebook.  One that traces its origins from ancient times all the way through to this, the digital age:

Ancient Beginnings

The story of the notebook begins in Ancient Greece, around the 4th Century B.C.  Here, the earliest ancestors of modern notebooks were born. Tablets, consisting of a wooden frame filled with wax, served as the primary writing tool. Users wrote on them with a stylus and the wax ensured they could easily erase any marks and re-write, making them incredibly practical for their time.

The Roman Codex

Fast forward to the 2nd century A.D., and we witness the emergence of the codex in the Roman Empire. With its bound sheets of writing material, this was the first version of the modern book.  It quickly replaced papyrus scrolls and wax tablets, because it was easier to write in and allowed quicker access to specific information. The codex marked a significant leap in the evolution of written records.

Medieval Paper Notebooks

During the Early Middle Ages, paper notebooks began to appear. However, due to the high cost and rarity of paper, these notebooks were a luxury, primarily used by scholars, scribes, rich merchants and the nobility. Their use was limited, but crucial in preserving knowledge and information in a more durable and compact form than before.

The Printing Press Era

The 15th century brought a revolution in the form of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press. This invention made paper more widespread and affordable, leading to a gradual increase in the use of notebooks for various purposes; where the accessibility of written material began to expand beyond the elite. This was the era of the Renaissance, when the grand master of notebook-keeping, Leonardo da Vinci, was alive. He was a notebook fiend!  Every day, he was at it - scribbling, doodling, drawing, designing. His notebooks were filled with a whole manner of eclectic sketches, from bubbles, vortices and waves to vertebrae and feet bones, as well as plans for valves, pumps, furnaces and grinders. He even made a list of 67 different words to describe how water moves. Talk about dedication! And his imagination? Boundless! He dreamt up flying machines and prefabricated homes.  Without access to notebooks, he wouldn’t have been able to do any of the above (imagine trying to scribble all these ideas and drawings in wax!) and we wouldn’t have these precious records today.

The Rise of the Commonplace Book

It was during the 17th Century that Europe saw the rise in popularity of the "commonplace book." These were personal collections of information, including sketches, recipes, quotes, and thoughts – a little like a modern-day wellness journal!  They were used by everyone, from wives and housekeepers to students and scholars alike to compile knowledge and ideas, reflecting a growing culture of learning and enquiry.  Indeed, the journey of the notebook up to the 18th century shows a gradual but remarkable transformation. From wax tablets to bound paper, each stage in its evolution reflects broader changes in human society and technology.

The Dawn of Mass Production

The industrial revolution in the 19th century brought about mass production of paper and improvements in binding technology.  This meant that notebooks became increasingly affordable and widely used across different sectors of society. It was during this period that they started to play a pivotal role in the lives of various eminent personalities.  For instance, in the realm of literature.  Authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen used personalised notebooks to write down their initial story ideas and character sketches, for works that later blossomed into some of the most celebrated works in English literature.

Diversity and Digital Revolution

The 20th century saw an explosion in the types and uses of notebooks. Spiral-bound, legal pads, A5 notebook and B5 notebook, the dotted journal, grid notebook and memo books all became commonplace, catering to different needs, from academic to professional.  Anyone who was anyone loved and used them.  For instance, Albert Einstein, the renowned physicist, was known for his extensive use of notebooks for his mathematical calculations and theoretical work, including his groundbreaking theory of relativity.  Whilst artists like Pablo Picasso also utilised notebooks for sketching and brainstorming, proving that these simple objects were vital tools for creative minds across all disciplines.

The Digital Shift

Despite the digital revolution, the allure of the traditional paper notebook persisted. Electronic notebooks and note-taking software began to emerge, offering new ways to record and organise information. However, they didn't entirely replace paper notebooks but instead provided an alternative that catered to the digital age.

The Resurgence of the Paper Notebook

In the 21st century, despite the prevalence of digital technology, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of traditional paper notebooks. In this fast-paced world, they have become useful tools for unplugging, mindfulness, and creativity. This trend reflects a desire to return to simpler, more tactile forms of recording and reflecting on our thoughts and ideas; a slower, more satisfying and thoughtful form of chronicling information. 

Today's notebooks are more than just a place to jot down notes. Like their ancient counterparts, they're canvases for sketches, keepers of to-do lists, recipe reminders and even ledgers.  

And let's not overlook their aesthetic evolution – from neon hues to pastel shades, every personalised notebook is a statement.  Customise your cover for another layer of personal touch, and why not make each page inside your own too.

For a start, attach your favourite black pen to your notebook with a pen holder – so that it never gets lost!  Then pick your finest gel pens and brush pens, and use colouring pencils and highlighters to bring each page alive.  And don’t forget some washi tape – it’s ideal for sectioning out individual pages and adding a touch of interest, or some cute paper clips if you want to group pages together.  The joy of a real, tactile notebook, as opposed to using a digital one, is that it’s so easy to create something as unique as you are….and have fun while you’re doing it!