I've been a web developer for almost thirteen years. Before that, I was in book publishing for five years. But what I really want to do is: be an enigmatically stylish ex-pat writer who sits in cafés and writes stuff. (Parisian ones, ideally. The cafés, I mean: Parisian.) You know, like Hemingway. Like an updated version of Hemingway who can't speak French. That's where I see my life going, as much as one can predict these things.
To that end (because if you're not proactive about this stuff, you'll get nowhere in life), I've just purchased a Moleskine notebook. The Moleskine (pronounced mo-leh-skee-neh) notebook is, as the prominent copy on its packaging unequivocally states, "the legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin." (I like the Hemingway angle: see above.) I picked up the notebook yesterday at Barnes & Noble, in the Moleskine section. (Quite a few of life's losers in the Moleskine section, btw -- Bic users, a lot of them, I'm sure: hacks.)
Anyway, I haven't opened it yet. Would you like to open it with me? Or would that be weird? No? Great. Okay!
...Okay. Here we are. It says "Moleskine," and then, as I said, it says "The legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin." Then blah blah blah... "Acid-free paper," good... "Expandable inner pocket." Love it.
On the back, it says, "the history of the Moleskine is in the expandable inner pocket." Great; we'll look at that in a bit. "Printed and bound in China." Hmm... Well, why not.
There's some plastic protective covering... Let's get that off...
...There. And here's an elastic-band thing, so you can sort of mark your place or whatever. Perfect. Or maybe it's to hold the notebook shut. Both, I suppose. Brilliant.
...Love the feel of this thing, incidentally. You can sort of almost feel the legendariosity; it's hard to describe. I'm so happy! I feel a little... tingly, sort of.
And here's the acid-free paper. I'd like for my biographers to be able to review my notebooks a hundred years from now when they're in the British Museum and not have the pages be all brittle; that's what the acid-free thing is for. Or the Louvre. I'd sort of prefer the Louvre in a way... You know, I'm feeling... Hmm; I don't know if it's the... the acid-free thing or what, but...
...Oh, to hell with it, come here, you!
...Because I want you, is why! ...Nnnng-mmmm ...acid-free-Hemingway-legendary-Picasso-mmmmm...
...Sorry; I don't know what got into me. Could we... maybe not tell people about this? It could be, like, our little secret that only we would know about. It would be so great, really, if we could keep it like that.
* * *
So, yeah, I have a problem with this whole Moleskine thing. I guess that's probably clear.
Why? Okay, first of all: it is not true that Moleskines are "the legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin." To say so is not merely misleading; it is not true.
When I encountered the legendary Moleskine notebook for the first time, I read the "Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin" thing and took it at face value: Moleskine was a firm, apparently, which manufactured high quality notebooks, probably partly of moleskin, and which had been around at least since the early part of the last century. (Actually, at the time I believe the tag-line was "The legendary notebook of Van Gogh, Matisse, Hemingway and Chatwin"; here's one of those.)
Well, Moleskines were not, in fact, the notebooks of Hemingway or Picasso or Chatwin (or, for that matter, of Van Gogh or Matisse). "Moleskine" is a trademark registered in 1996 by Modo & Modo, an Italian company. Another way of phrasing that: "There was no 'Moleskine' brand until twelve years ago." The word "moleskine" was apparently in use before that as a word meaning, roughly, "hardbound notebook looking as if it might have a moleskin cover." But please read on; it's almost certainly worse than you think.
What is true, apparently, is that Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin, Matisse, and Van Gogh used notebooks sometimes. For example, Modo & Modo justifies the inclusion of Hemingway in its list of distinguished Moleskine lovers because he speaks, in an essay called "A Good Café On the Place St.-Michel," of writing in a notebook which he does not describe whatsoever. I happen to have, here, a copy of A Moveable Feast, the collection in which this essay appears; here is what Hemingway has to say in it regarding notebooks:
I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.
That's Hemingway, straight to the point, and also, that's it. Page 5 of the 1996 Touchstone paperback edition, first full paragraph on the page. You will not find anything more in the way of notebook-description than this. Please have a look yourself if you don't believe me: as luck would have it, Amazon lets us "Look Inside!" the hardback edition: scroll to page 12, bottom of the page, for the same comprehensive lack of notebook description.
Claiming Chatwin to be among the list of Moleskine lovers is probably the least false of all these claims: the design of Moleskine notebooks is based on his detailed descriptions of the notebooks which he used for much of his life and took on his many travels. And at any rate, other firms sell notebooks which are, like Moleskines, very similar to the ones Chatwin describes.
But details are mere... details. It's enough, to Moleskine, that Hemingway ("the most influential writer of the last century," the Moleskine web site tells us -- influential, no doubt, in part because he'd found a tear in the fabric of space-time which enabled him to write in notebooks which didn't exist yet) wrote in a notebook. And it's enough that there are some of Van Gogh's notebooks in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which look like Moleskines. But are these museum notebooks Moleskines? Well, Moleskine began manufacturing their notebooks more than a century after Van Gogh's death. So, no.
Speaking of Van Gogh and the fact that he's dead, there's another interesting thing about this list of supposed users of Moleskine: they're all dead. That's interesting, isn't it: dead spokespeople, sort of. Which reminds me of the putrid television ads for the New Yorker magazine that ran in the mid 1990s, which quoted Harrison Salisbury as saying that the New Yorker was "maybe the best magazine that ever was." The problem: Tina Brown had taken the helm of the magazine in 1992, and Salisbury died in 1993, so it's extremely unlikely that Salisbury was referring to Tina Brown's new New Yorker when he said that. But... He was dead! So... whatever! And Hemingway is dead too, and Chatwin, and Picasso, and Van Gogh, and Matisse, so... whatever!
(At least one well known Moleskine fan is alive: Dave Eggers. Maybe "the legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Eggers" didn't test well. Or maybe Eggers exercised his right as an alive person not to be so closely associated with such a sick-makingly false claim.)
What do you call marketing claims which go as far as this does? "An exaggeration" is what Modo & Modo marketer Francesco Franceschi calls it. "A lie" is what I'm tempted to call it, although something holds me back. Is saying that a claim is false the same thing as saying that it's a lie? I'm really not sure. I sort of think that it is the same, though.
* * *
Then, there's this: if Moleskines were the notebook of choice of Hemingway, Picasso, or Chatwin... well, who cares?
I'll go out on a limb (hang on, just a sec... okay, here I am, out on a limb... I'm on a limb now) and say that Hemingway would have written The Sun Also Rises regardless of what notebooks (if any) were available to him.
I'll go out on another limb and say that whatever type of notebook Hemingway used, its use by most other writers wouldn't result in another The Sun Also Rises. This seems so basic, but I'll say it anyway: it's not the notebooks which are legendary; it's Hemingway, Picasso, etc., who are legendary.
Right? I mean, perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps if all Hemingway had had at his disposal were cheap notebooks from CVS, maybe he would have failed as a writer. That seems unlikely to me. Same goes for the artists: I understand the importance of having high-quality paper to sketch on. But my guess is that Van Gogh would still have been Van Gogh whether or not he sketched on notebooks which Moleskine now roughly reproduces. Van Gogh's notebooks are in the Van Gogh Museum because of what Van Gogh put in them. Not because they have little strap-thing to hold them shut or an inside pocket for putting stuff in.
And then there is this: website after website after website devoted to the legendarily legendary legendariness of the stuff-of-legend Moleskine notebook. Many, many, many people maintain these websites, contribute to them, read them.
I can't say whether most or even many of these people buy into the "Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin" thing.
What I can say, though, is that the existence of websites devoted to paintings and sketches painted or drawn in a particular brand of notebook seems, to me, fundamentally asinine.
What I can also say is that for someone named Dan to post (on a page entitled "Newbie Questions") something like "I am a recent convert to the Moleskine world and wanted to ask a few questions about Moleskine Culture" (sorry, Moleskine Culture?) is a sign that something is wrong somewhere. One of Dan's questions: "Are the devotees of the pocket-sized books a distinct sect from those who use the larger versions? Or are we all one big happy family?" (Good question, Dan. The unfortunate fact is that these two factions coexist uneasily; actual riots, though, have only broken out on three occasions since the introduction of the Moleskine in 1996, and at least one of these riots was caused in part by a dispute over an iPhone. That was also the one where the dude died of stab wounds administered with a Faber Castell 1.2mm E-Motion pencil.) Another of Dan's questions: "What do people carry their 'skines around in?" 'Skines? Dan, this is the newbie page, and you're a newbie; how about, let's steer clear of the slang until you've got a better grasp of the basics. (But to answer your question: something that many "veterans" do is to affix their Moleskines to the top of their heads with duct tape.)
What I can also say is that the idea of "Moleskine hacks" is a misguided one: okay, clever enough to refer to suggestions as to how to use your Moleskine as "hacks," but how is "use the upper right corner of a page to make a small note of what that page is about" specific to the legendary Moleskine? Wouldn't such a tip apply to pretty much any notebook? Same goes for "I carry three or four Post-It notes on the inside front cover of my pocket-sized Moleskine, and when I need to jot down a few quick temporary notes I slap one onto the outside front," right?
What I can also say is that I think there's something creepy and fucked-up about a world in which a Google search for the phrase "my trusty Moleskine" returns 603 results. "I love my Moleskine"? Ninety-nine results. "My beloved Moleskine"? Thirty-nine. "My Moleskine is my best friend"? According to Google, there are two people in the world whose best friend is a notebook: a specific brand of notebook. (Or, two people willing to admit it publicly.) "I want to make love to my Moleskine"? No results for that (and none for the variations either, such as "sleep with," "have sex with," "fuck," etc., although I didn't try variations with adjectives, such as "I want to sleep with my trusty Moleskine"). None, either, for "I want for my Moleskine to like me," or for "Lately, my Moleskine seems sort of distant." So that's encouraging, sort of. (Then again, a search for pages containing the words "Moleskine" and "Hemmingway" -- not "Hemingway," but "Hemmingway" -- returns 7,310 results. So that's not encouraging.)
What I can also say is that stumbling on musings such as "my wife and I took Moleskines on our honeymoon for journaling" sort of makes me want to gouge my eyes out, but also sort of reminds me of the scene from Best In Show where Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock describe how they met: he liked to work on his Mac at a certain Starbucks, and she liked to work on her Mac at different Starbucks, and these two Starbucks were across the street from each other, so one day...
And what I can finally say is that Moleskines are well designed, high-quality notebooks. I like well designed, high-quality things. I understand the importance of heavy, acid-free paper for certain uses -- it lasts; it doesn't turn yellow or brittle; etc. I understand that people like to sketch or paint or doodle on quality paper. I understand that notebooks carried on your person tend to take a beating, so the more durable the better. I understand that it's nice to find a brand of this or that product (shirt, bourbon, laundry detergent, running shoe, toilet paper) that works for you, supplies of which you can reliably replenish as needed.
I believe that it's important to be passionate about something -- multiple things, ideally. But I also believe that it's possible to be passionate in misguided ways. And while I imagine that the majority of people who purchase Moleskine notebooks do so because they're well made, highly functional, aesthetically pleasing, long lasting, etc., there is this subset (I'll use newcomer Dan's words: members of the "Moleskine Culture") for whom Moleskine is more. Much more. And it seems to me that spending so much time thinking and writing about a brand of notebook, whether or not they buy into the "legendary notebook of Hemingway" thing -- about why they are the best thing since (artisanal) sliced bread; about how to "hack" them to do wondrous things that notebooks weren't strictly designed to do, such as be adhered to by Post-It notes; about how best to carry ones Moleskine (purse? cargo pants? backpack? man-purse?); and so on -- is to expend energy that could otherwise be directed towards more creative endeavors.
Speaking of misguided passions, while PH is amused by my current interest in this Moleskine phenomenon, she suggested yesterday that perhaps I was becoming passionate about it in an unproductive way. Perhaps she's right. What I'd say (what I said to her) is that I don't think this is really about Moleskine.
I think it's about people kidding themselves in general about their lives.
I think it's about sending people letters with sealing wax on them; about owning a Viking stove large enough on which to cook dinner for a small prison population; about Mac snobbery, and to the extent that it exists, PC snobbery; about Starbucks' attempt to make us think of ourselves as discerning, creative, cultured people because we buy coffee there; about calling yourself an artist because you live in a (non-high-rise) apartment in Williamsburg (where I am right now, wrapping up this post), and own some paintbrushes or a video camera or a glue gun, and believe that Starbucks is evil, and know how to wear your goofy Williamsburg hat properly.
I think it's (often) less about ostentatiousness, or rather, it's about inwardly directed ostentatiousness.
I think it's about us pulling the wool over our own heads.
X-rated Moleskine photos by PH.