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Little black books

Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas arrived here a few weeks back – I make no apology for putting this out there – and a grateful world has ten new songs to add to the canon.

But that’s not why we’re here. We’ll leave him rumbling away, his sub-baritone voice in his boots, and tour the sleeve notes. The lyrics are there, the sketches and the credits, and pages from the various notebooks where the songs took shape.

These drafts, crossings-out and first thoughts are the star of the show, where the Old Ideas are seen at the moment of their newness, scribbled, sketched, begun again – and it’s hard to look away. The open notebook is the closest writing gets to being performed live. It’s where first thoughts are caught in the act and ideas quicken, and it’s why notebooks are everywhere.

It all started around six years ago, audibly, with the crisp snap of the Moleskine strap. Chic, sleek, minimally finished in matt black with an obliging bend to the spine, the notebook for grown-ups had arrived, riding in on a stroke of marketing genius.

With its strictly pared-down design, the Moleskine already had a whiff of seriousness: 96 off-white pages (ruled, graph or plain), a pocket on the inside back cover to suggest we might be interesting enough to fill it, the Moleskine was retro-fitted with cool. Leaving nothing to chance, the accompanying leaflet invoked the spirits of Hemingway, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Bruce Chatwin, whose favourite notebook this was and who gave it its name.

While the Moleskine was the only name in town, designers busied themselves testing the functional limits of 96 bound pages and a sturdy band to secure the covers. The resulting Ciaks, Rhodias and Cartesios rolled off the presses and into the hands of a small but dedicated army of paper-geeks who put them through their paces.

And how do you test a blank journal? You bend the spine. You ping the straps. If it claims to be waterproof, you leave it out in the rain. You lean your nib against the page and see if the ink bleeds. You assess the shine and weight of the paper and the distance between the lines.

Notebooks sell. So do iPads and tablets, but there’s something else at work here and it’s to do with the appeal of the unfinished. Grunge fonts kick at the anodyne lines of Arial and Helvetica, mimic the careless jottings of the creative at work, and speak with a human voice (complete with smudges). It doesn’t hurt, they tell us, to have a bit of incompleteness lying around the desk.

There was always a market for the little black book. Alan Bennett turns his notes over to the Bodleian library and makes the headlines. Charlotte Bronte’s notebook – a very little book indeed – sells at auction for a million dollars and change. Journalists at the launch of Old Ideas fall to speculating on what Leonard’s jottings might fetch on the day they come under the hammer.

You can’t back up a sheaf of paper (if you’re serious about yours, you might wish that you could), but there it is; some drafts are made to be lost, travelled away from, abandoned. The little black – or orange, or pink – book is straightforwardly practical, but the market for them is telling us something else: they’re aimed straight at our grungy, inky heart.


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One Response to "Little black books"

  1. Jim says:

    This is inky heart-warming stuff. Thank you for writing so (ink)well.

    I shall stop there

    Jim x

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