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Cultural Fetish Objects Observed: Moleskine Notebooks

HEMINGWAY scribbled on matchbooks. PICASSO drew on newspaper scraps. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT sketched his first design for the Guggenheim on a paper napkin. Creative minds use all sorts of scratch paper when inspiration srikes. But of all their options, the Greats have favored one above the rest: a simple, pocket-sized notebook, bound in black oilcloth and held together with a small strap.

After the jump Flavorwire contributor Alex Littlefield deconstructs our obsession with these little black books.

Our story begins in France. Available at many Parisian stationery shops, they were called carnets moleskines, or “moleskine notebooks,” moleskine being the French term for imitation leather — not to be confused with “moleskin,” a heavy cotton fabric.

Picasso used carnets moleskines, as did Hemingway (at least, when one was available). Modo & Modo, the Italian company that resurrected the notebooks, has been quick to remind today’s artists that they’re following in some pretty big footsteps.

Of course, Hemingway never set eyes on a MOLESKINE — at least, not the heavily branded, capital-M version that’s sold today. Those were trademarked in 1998, filling a market that’s been largely empty since the original notebooks became unavailable in the mid-eighties. Presumably because of their new country of manufacture, the newest permutation of the notebooks is pronounced in an Italian lilt: “mol-a-skeen’-a.”

British writer BRUCE CHATWIN describes the demise of the original carnets moleskines in his book SONGLINES. Upon hearing that true moleskines were becoming scarce, he asked his local stationer to order him a hundred directly from a small manufacturer in Tours, France. When he returned later that day to follow up, the stationer shakily informed him that the head of the Tours company had died and the business had been sold.

“Le vrai moleskine n’est plus,” she lamented. “The true moleskine is no more.”

Today’s rank-and-file Moleskine owners might disagree. In 2005 Americans bought roughly 2.25 million of the notebooks, and the numbers have had nowhere to go but up. Of course, things have changed a bit; PETE DOHERTY has replaced Hemingway as a prominent Moleskine devotee, and instead of museums, most of the art that first goes into the notebooks ends up online — on sites like skineart.com, which allow Moleskine owners to post pages from their notebooks and trade notes with other artists.

It’s easy to dismiss Moleskines because of their faddishness and ostentatious allusions to the canon, but there’s something eternal about the notebooks themselves. Artist ARMAND B. FRASCO sums up the Moleskine mentality on his Web site moleskinerie.com — a blog dedicated to “the places and adventures, life’s little dramas and other forgettable events that otherwise would have been lost were [they] not scrawled between the pages of these little black books.”

That’s a pretty solid argument for the unbroken moleskine tradition, and the kind of reverent thinking that inspired an entire essay series from guest writers on his site.

But ultimately my research begged the question, can one blank little notebook really be worth all of this big hype?

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