The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 23, 2010 · 175 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Images from Field Notes

The idea of carrying around a pocket notebook has become quite popular these last few years, revived by the introduction of the current incarnation of the “Moleskine” into the market. It’s become so popular that I’m afraid it has come to be seen as trendy or faddish, and this is putting some men off to starting this important habit themselves. Some find the Cult of the Moleskine and its faux history understandably distasteful. The company shills their pricey Made in China notebooks as the notebook of Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Matisse, when the company that currently makes them only got into the business in 1997.

But don’t let the pocket notebook’s current image dissuade you from carrying one around. The truth is that you don’t need to use a Moleskine (unless you really like them)-even some note cards clipped together will do. And far from being a modern fad, the pocket notebook has a long, important, and manly history. Pocket notebooks were part of the arsenal of a long list of great men from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Edison (we’re working on an in-depth post of how these men used their notebooks for the future). The repositories of eminent men’s personal effects nearly always includes a pocket notebook full of their ideas and musings.

I spent many hours combing through the google book archives looking for references on the use of pocket notebooks by ordinary men during this past century. The following excerpts I collected show the pocket notebook’s history and demonstrate that far from being the domain of the modern hipster, the pocket notebook has always been used by men from many different walks of life.

The Farmer

“One farmer I know keeps his notebook in his pocket to jot down the tasks which can be performed on a rainy day. This enables him to plan quickly the work for a rainy day. In planning rainy day work, do first the jobs which are in danger of getting in the way of the next dry weather work. The rule is to leave no rainy-day work to be done when it is not raining for in this climate our profits are limited by the amount of outdoor work we get done.” -Circular, Issues 46-105, By Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture , 1914

The Salesman

“There should be a book in your pocket all the while ready for the name of anyone who might be induced to handle your product. A name overheard, a name suggested by a fellow traveling man, a name secured by visiting with someone from a town you do not make, a name seen in a local newspaper—any such name may be that of your prospect.

One salesman I know buys the local newspaper in every town he enters and reads the personal columns as well as the advertisements in search of men who may be or may become possible customers. He studies openings in towns where there is a possible opportunity, and he puts the right men in touch with them. He visits with representatives of the local commercial organizations and advertising clubs and gathers much information that he tabulates in a pocket notebook. He always has at hand information of value to men in his line of trade, and in time they come to realize it and look forward to his coming, saving him some kind of an order even if they are not much in need, because they want a chance to talk with him.” -The Successful Salesman, By Frank Farrington, 1918

The Minister

“Have upon your study table, always accessible, a good-sized substantially bound blank book. Whenever a germinant thought comes seize your pen and write it down. Such thoughts will come out of your special course of literary reading, out of your cursory scanning of current fiction, even out of the five-minute glance given to the morning paper, out of nowhere and from anywhere. Thought-compelling suggestions entirely foreign to the sermon on which you are just now engaged will frequently send you to your treasure book, and without any damage to present preparation you will scribble down a page of matter that will set you on fire at some future day just when you are in need of inspiration and help. Have also a special vest-pocket notebook and let nothing escape you.” -The Methodist Review, 1907

The Boy Scout

“In one of the pockets there should be a lot of bachelor buttons, the sort that you do not have to sew on to your clothes, but which fasten with a snap, something like glove buttons. There should be a pocket made in your shirt or vest to fit your notebook, and a part of it stitched up to hold a pencil and a toothbrush….

No camper, be he hunter, fisherman, scout, naturalist, explorer, prospector, soldier or lumberman, should go into the woods without a notebook and hard lead pencil. Remember that notes made with a hard pencil will last longer than those made with ink, and be readable as long as the paper lasts.

Every scientist and every surveyor knows this and it is only tenderfeet, who use a soft pencil and fountain pen for making field notes, because an upset canoe will blur all ink marks and the constant rubbing of the pages of the book will smudge all soft pencil marks.

Therefore, have a pocket especially made, so that your notebook, pencil and fountain pen, if you insist upon including it—will fit snugly with no chance of dropping out.” -The American Boys’ Handybook of Camp-lore and Woodcraft, By Daniel Carter Beard, 1920

The Doctor

“When I started in practice, I got in the habit of putting many of my spare moments (had plenty of them!) into studying up some of the rarer diseases that we had to deal with. I would read up all I could find on one subject, then I would take some time in thinking it over, then I would formulate a plan of treatment and write it out in a pocket-notebook. In after years, that old notebook helped me out of a good many difficult situations; and some of the best work I have ever done has come from those notes.” -The American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Volume 25, 1918

The Architect

“The little pocket notebook, I soon discovered, was not a record book in the accounting sense of the term. Nevertheless, it was a very necessary part of the architect’s business paraphernalia. The rules of the American Institute of Architects do not permit members of the profession to advertise, or go after new business in most of the ways that are current among commercial organizations. Therefore, the successful architect is a man with a wide ‘acquaintance among the classes of persons who are likely to become builders. He quickly learns to take note of projected buildings, in order to follow up the prospective owners, and secure for his own office the work of designing the building.

This is the purpose of the architect’s pocket notebook. Whenever he gets wind from any source of a projected building, he makes a note of it. Sometimes he secures his information from news notes in the daily papers; more frequently he gets advance information from the people he associates with, and from regular commercial agency reports. If the prospect has in mind constructing a building of the class the architect is used to handling, he makes a personal call on the owner.

‘Sometimes,’ says the architect, ‘I don’t need to use my little book so strenuously as at other times. A growing reputation and a ‘come-back’ clientele are gradually making it possible for me to devote less time to getting business and more time to handling the work that is under way. I keep the book up from habit; and occasionally it brings me a job of the kind I particularly want, and might miss if I didn’t have my notebook as a daily reminder.’” -The Magazine of Business, Volume 27, By Arch Wilkinson Shaw, 1915

The Naturalist

“I am often asked to recommend the best kind of notebook and diary to use for nature observations; but I have never seen any that is satisfying. The value of notes depends upon their being taken on the spot. If you think that you can carry the records of a country ramble home in your head and write them down at your leisure in the evenings, you are very much mistaken. You must carry them home, already written, in your pocket; and for that purpose you must have a handy pocket notebook. But the notes hurriedly written on the spot are not, of course, intended to be your permanent record. Indeed, your penciled scrawls on a cold day would often become unintelligible within a week. If, however, you use a good system of abbreviations, you will find that you can get a surprising amount of detailed observation into each small page of the pocket notebook; and if the book is “self-opening,” i.e., if the pencil is always fixed to the page on which the next entry will be made, very little time is spent in taking the notes.” -Country-Side: A Wildlife Magazine, Volume 4, By British Empire Naturalist’s Association, 1928

The Student

“But you may say, “I have already begun wrong with a long list of words; my problem now is how to get them right, and how to avoid similar mistakes with new words in the future. It is too late to take spelling over again. What is the short cut to improvement?”

Improvement may be made to begin at once by following a very simple plan. Buy an indexed pocket notebook and enter in it from day to day words that you find yourself habitually misspelling. Study Appendix IV, section by section, and copy from it into your notebook words that seem to resist mastery. Copy only a few at a time.

From this notebook choose a word at a time, and by a deliberate act of attention, look at it as if you had never seen it before; if practicable, spell it aloud—slowly, so that you have time to realize the presence of each letter. Then write it correctly again and again; cover a page with it, writing without a pause; if you can, spell it aloud as you write. Underline, as you write, the part of the word in which your error occurs. Repeat this process for five minutes at a time, if necessary every day for a week, or until you know that you can never misspell this word again…

If you feel that this is hard to do, remember that the alternative is lifelong exposure to the unjust suspicion of illiteracy.” -The Writing of English, By John Matthews Manly, Edith Rickert,

Carrying a Pocket Notebook

Hopefully the excerpts above inspired you to start carrying a pocket notebook yourself. It’s a manly tradition that ought to be continued today. Along with a pocket knife and handkerchief, a notebook should reside in the pocket of every man.

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. You may get a business idea, an insight into something you or a loved one has been struggling with, or hear a quote you wish to record. Even though you feel sure in the moment that you’ll be able to remember these thoughts when you get home, every one of us has experienced the agony of realizing later that an idea is utterly gone from our minds and that no amount of mental gymnastics can bring it back.

But the pocket notebook has many more uses. I use mine for brainstorming sessions and as a place to write down and review my personal goals and keep track of things I need to get done. I use it for mundane things like grocery lists and people’s phone numbers. And I love to make calculations, keeping track of income and figuring out when I can pay off my debt. And of course I use it doodle and play hangman with Kate when I get bored at church.

What do you use your pocket notebook for? Share your ideas in the comments!

{ 175 comments… read them below or add one }

1 soonerscotty August 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm

It’s interesting you mention the minister and take the quote from a Methodist publication…my grandpa was a Methodist minister and he always had a small notebook in his shirt pocket. I never saw it close up but, I always wondered what he wrote down in there.
Gah! Now you’ve made me miss my grandpa…thanks a lot =]

2 Dan August 23, 2010 at 7:40 pm

I’m a minister, and I use my pocket notebook (a little Moleskine, or a stack of index cards) to keep track of things folks need prayer for, or church-related concerns. I’ve never used it for sermon prep, but only because I have a large legal pad for that…

I love the notebooks in the picture. I used to work for the Indiana Farm Bureau Credit Union.

Also, IBM used to give out the “ThinkPads,” which were little leather notebooks with the word “Think” on the front. I would love to get ahold of some of those.

3 Angel August 23, 2010 at 7:42 pm

I use a Picadilly pocket notebook. I mean, yeah they are trendy but what sets a man or woman apart from the yuppie trendies is the content. It’s what you write and how you use it.

4 Dan the Man August 23, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Great post. My grandpa always carried around a pocket notebook. He would make little entries in it about what he did each day, like a small diary. Now it’s cool to look through it and see what his day to day life was like.

I myself am a fan of Field Notes. Perhaps a little more expensive than generic notebooks, but they’re made in the USA which is important to me.

5 Brian August 23, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I’m an architect and I find myself using a pocket notebook for jotting down crucial information during field visits or questions from contractors. I usually use the free notepads we get from product seminars but I’ve had my eye on those Field Note notebooks for a while now.

6 DonB August 23, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Photographers are encouraged to write down camera settings for pictures they take. They’re also encouraged to keep notes about a certain places to photograph as well as the best time of day to take the perfect shot, whether it be dawn or evening light.

7 Bill Daugherty August 23, 2010 at 8:05 pm

There is a brief mention of Hemingway, but even the most humble writer should have a note book handy at all times. Ideas are in the atmosphere and just as flimsy. Whether you are a poet or prose writer, you can’t afford to let one escape. Look it over later to see if it can be developed but don’t reject it now, no matter how silly or stupid it seems.

8 Elizabeth August 23, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Spare paper of any sort is good for writing. Many of William Carlos Williams’s poems are short because the good doctor wrote them on his prescription pads.

9 Joshua August 23, 2010 at 8:33 pm

If you need a pocket notebook in a pinch you can always make one from a sheet of paper.

10 Blake Helgoth August 23, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Forget he notebook and go paperless. Every smart phone has a notebook app. and it is very handy to store a multitute of notes. I still use a PDA. I can store many books, reference guides, etc. on it for the spare moments I have and my time for meditation. I can take it anywhere and it is backed up on my computer! While it might feel cool to pull out the pocket notebook, the digital version is much more practical (and less trendy).

11 August 23, 2010 at 8:49 pm

You’ll be happy to know the boy scouts still teach young men this lesson. Also on hand in that pocket is a lamented list of phone numbers.

12 Hilton August 23, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Mr. McKay,
I’m afraid that I am confused by your last sentence. If you are in fact finding yourself bored in church then why not remove yourself to a more productive environment such as a local charity.


“Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”
Bill Gates

13 Bryon Perona Jr August 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I’ve long-since ditched my pocket notebook for an iPhone, but the tradition persists in its digital form. :?)

I’m a computer technician so I often use my iPhone to write down (or take a snapshot) of service tags or error messages, to write down names, numbers, and appointments, and to compile a list of to dos. And on Sunday’s it’s super-convenient to have my Bible and sermon notes all in a slick device that fits in my pocket. ;?)

I don’t know how I’d get by without it…

14 Josh August 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I’m a mechanic and I occasionally jot down things like steps to put things back together or a quick note of what I need to ask the owner when he gets back from a flight. Also the little things like honey dos and grocery lists. Also a joke here and there to lighten the mood when I’m flipping back through my ramblings.

15 Johnny Darko August 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm

one night out my cellphone was flat, so the chick i hooked up with wrote her number on my hand. after leaving the club i went and bought a notebook and pen to write her number down properly.

ever since then, ive used it for heapsa things. writing lists seems to be the main purpose, but ive also written out the rules to various drinking games and theres quite a few little sketches and ramblings also.

16 Bryon Perona Jr August 23, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Regarding your last comment as well, Brett, if you’re finding yourself bored at church might I humbly suggest you’re attending the wrong church? The worship of God and advancement of his Kingdom is supposed to be one of the most exciting things on the planet! Unfortunately too often it has gotten bogged down in rote religion.

17 Justin Johnson August 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I’ve been using pocket notebooks for a very long time, since high school (pre-millennium!). I typically used top spiral-bound, cheap notebooks, some of which I keep around still. But in the last few years I’ve received Moleskine (or generic equivalents) as gifts and I’ve been using them. For everything. Phone numbers, directions, ideas, grocery lists, etc. But I have one that I keep as specifically as a hard-copy journal.

I find pocket notebooks to be indispensable.

18 Michael August 23, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Those commenters that are talking about going to another church are clearly Protestants and evangelicals who have sadly bought into the idea that worship is something you shop around for the way you shop for a car. So sad.

19 Jake Chesterfield August 23, 2010 at 9:13 pm

The internet makes people dumb. You write this awesome post about notebooks, and now you have a small group of people focused only on one flippant line (that looks like it was meant as a joke) about how you doodle at church (which I think most people who attend church have done from time to time).

Brett, stop the threadjack before the comments get too far off topic. It ruins it for the rest of us.

End rant.

I just usually use a cheap memo books that you can pick up at the drug store. Costs me $1 for a two pack. Nice….

20 Ron August 23, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I got hooked on “Rite in the Rain” ( notebooks while working in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, and have been using them ever since. A great way to keep track of tasks, ideas, contact information, directions, and to write down notes after important conversations.

21 Dave August 23, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Ha! Great to read this post. I carry a notebook in my back pocket all the time. It may be big in the States, but down in Oz its certainly a rarity. People think its an oddity that I carry a notepad. But I love it! Every random business or story idea that comes through my mind I’m able to immediately write down, rather than having scraps of paper floating around everywhere.

22 Jupiter Calhoun August 23, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I keep a notebook, but I’m using it less and less. My phone has apps that let me jot down and even record voice note. The few times I do take written notes, I wind up taking a snapshot and saving it on Evernote.

23 Jason P. Franklin August 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm

It’s rare to see me without my little notebook sticking out of my shirt pocket. As a minister I too found that particular entry very interesting.

My notebook is a black, faux-leather, pocket sized thing with a white Apple logo sticker I got from my iPod. I call it my Apple Notebook.

24 Leif August 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm

I carry a notebook from Field Notes. I write down pretty much anything in it – shopping list, plans for global domination, reminders for this or that, phone numbers, etc. It’s a useful tool…when I remember to bring the freaking pen

25 Brett August 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Thank you for your diligent research and opening our eyes to the history of the pocket notebook. Throughout history true gentlemen have always carried a pocket notebook to capture those fleeting moments of inspiration and genius, wherever or whenever they may be.

Does anyone know how the little black notebooks gained notoriety as the pocket companion of playboys? Did that start in the James Bond movies?

26 Richard August 23, 2010 at 10:15 pm

I whole heartedly agree with Ron. The best part about the Rite in the Rain books is they are basically waterproof. I carry two on me at all times at work. I use one for my platoon commander notes, meetings and as a reference point to conversations, while the other fits neatly into my breast pocket. Even if I’m in the parking lot as the CO is leaving and I get a drive by tasker I can jot it down.

27 Tryclyde August 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Yes, only on an internet thread will people focus on one meaningless line that virtually has nothing to do with the topic at hand……Anyway, great article. In addition to usually carrying paper when out of the house, I always have numerous notebooks, pads, etc. lying around in the house. Give me paper and pencil over digital writing any day of the week.

28 Frank August 23, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Once again, excellent timing on your post. I was thinking about picking up a pocket notebook today on my way to work. Your article reinforces my need and want of one.

29 John M. August 23, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Yeah, I think the PDA pretty much fulfills the same function today. I take most of my notes with it and the to-do list syncs directly with Outlook and email. Very handy. And they can look classy with a nice leather cover.

30 Scott K August 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm

I use a miniature Composition Book as a journal for working on my website. I also have a Post-It note on the inside of the back cover with a list of the week’s priorities and a Post-It note on the inside of the front cover with a count-down to different goals.

This was a great post and I’m looking forward to the post on how Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, and others used their notebooks.

31 Robert Penn August 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm

I carry a very small composition notebook that I use for multiple uses: writing down names of books or films people recommend, writing poetry when I am bored, phone numbers, and even as a small journal for short travels. Whenever I am not working I usually where a two piece suit and I carry it on my left interior pocket.

32 Michael August 24, 2010 at 12:05 am

I do carry a little notebook with me at all times for little thoughts or drawings, though the vast majority of my notes go in the iPhone. I’m a quick typer on it, and it’s far more legible… The ability to copy&paste/email/backup it is so convenient as well, of course.

33 Chris August 24, 2010 at 12:31 am

The old school charm of putting pen to paper cannot be replaced by phone or PDA. However, my wife has never washed either of these two items. The pocket notebook kept in the back pocket of my jeans has been the victim of the spin cycle many times…

34 Kevin August 24, 2010 at 1:06 am


when researching for your article on great men and their notebooks be sure to include the great Chef Fernand Point. His book, “Ma Gastronomie”, was recently republished and contains many examples of his sketches and notes from his notebook.

As an aspiring chef it is very important the I always have a notebook with me. If my chef asks me to make something it is assumed I will write down the recipe/technique so that I don’t have to ask how it is done next time.

“In all professions without doubt, but certainly in cooking, one is a student all his life.” – Fernand Point

35 "Mr. Ed" August 24, 2010 at 1:16 am

My dad always carries around a “memo pad”–in fact he’d usually have more than one going! I started carrying them a while back at college…just the simple “Staples” or “Mead” brand ones. Interestingly, Dad prefers the open-horizontal style, but I like the open-vertical kind.
I don’t like the spiral sticking out of my pocket though. I’ve been thinking about getting this leather case for a little more style!?

Maybe one reason they sort of died out (and this was before cell phones and PDAs I think) was because shirt pockets disappeared–you know, most polo and t-shirts don’t have them. The spiral binding does not survive jeans hip-pockets for long. I haven’t seen a recent return of them, though.

36 Keith Claridge August 24, 2010 at 2:12 am

im going out to buy a notebook now. I have been inspired. I think it helps clear and organise your mind and i also every now and then make up poetry in my head and i forget it. I font think mobile phones and pda’s are as good as writing something down, for me anyway.

37 Simon August 24, 2010 at 4:25 am

This reminds me of the “fieldstone method” of writing described by Gerald Weinberg –

38 Tom August 24, 2010 at 5:35 am

Like Ron & Richard, I started out with the Keuffel & Esser (K&E for those engineering types) “Rite in the Rain” surveyor’s field books, and engineer’s field books. The grids were great for making diagrams, listing data that was tabular in format, and not getting the notes all smudged if the place got wet. I’ve used some of the index cards as well, and keep some while out in the Lion Country here. But, I must confess I also keep the pocket sized moleskine in my back pocket nowadays. The old surveyor’s field books, which I still have a few, are stored away with my private stash of other things that I will pass along to my son someday.

39 John Reddy August 24, 2010 at 5:44 am

I carried a notebook for all of my adult life until the Palm Pilot came on the market. I now use a PDA phone with a built in memo function. I create individual lists of all the things I want to jot down from stuff I may need to by on the next trip to Home Depot or the liquor store to books I want to read, music I want to explore further or buy, notes on great meals or wines, recipes, or anything else I want to save for later.

I have many permanent lists: grocery store, BJ’s, Home Depot, book store, liquor/wine store, music, places to visit, things to look up on line and odd chores. Whenever something pops into my head, I get it into the PDA as soon as I can.

I do the same thing with all my work stuff but that’s a whole other story. At 58 years old, I find that, for me anyway, if it isn’t written down it doesn’t exist.

40 terry sperling August 24, 2010 at 6:53 am

I run my biz on mine, jotting down customers info, address,telephone number(back up to cell phone), basic information…when I answer my cell phone I have the notebook ready and pen in my other hand…customers ask “Are you ready to take down my address?” duh……Had to switch to plastic covers because of Floridas’ humidty.I carry two pens -one to give to my customers -has my logo and telephone number on them. They are really impressed getting a 4o cent pen for free after paying over a hundred dollars for my work.Go figure.

41 DWallace August 24, 2010 at 7:27 am

Just another vote for ‘Field Notes” They’re authentically American made (Very important to me), have a nice vintage feel, and the folks who staff the offices are just the most incredibly nice, responsive people I’ve ever bought something from. In fact, I’ve never yet had a shipment arrive without a little something ‘extra’ tucked inside, from pencils and pens, to rubber bands, and small yearly calendars.

Vintage look and feel, Grandpa’s approach to customers, and a chance to support American business. Field notes really is an incredible product. (

Just a fan – not an employee!

42 Christopher Hall August 24, 2010 at 8:32 am

I’ve taken up using notebooks over the past year. It was nice to see a post about a self improvement I’ve already gone ahead with.

I’ve got:
A large personal journal. This is where my long, drawn out thoughts go whenever I need them. It’s a chance for me to sit down, stop time and write to future generations.

18 Month Agenda. This is my Moleskine. I figured I’d see what the hype was all about. I like it because it’s easy for a left handed writer to write on in a pinch.

Gym Journal. For where my current lifts are, what I’m plateuing at, how long each workout is, and what I want to try next.

Guitar Practice Journal. Laying in front of my amp is my guitar journal. Here I keep track of where I am on specific songs, what I missed during the last practice, what I need to do next, music theory notes, and goals I have for the future.

43 Nick August 24, 2010 at 8:56 am

I’ve been carrying a pocket notebook – the cheap spiral bound kind – the last few years and think it’s great. I tried using digital versions on my cell phone or ipod touch, but in the time it takes me to load the app then fumble around with the keyboard I could have already wrote down my thought and put away the notebook. Analog, FTW! I actually had a friend comment one time about my notebook when I pulled it out to jot something down, he asked why I didn’t use my phone or something digital. I just shrugged and said “this is easier.” I think it made his day.

44 Sam August 24, 2010 at 9:19 am

I use Moleskine notebooks for everything from my date book (Blackberry is too unreliable) to my bedside journal, to the little cahiers book I carry everywhere. These books contain everything from grocery lists to thoughts on restaurants, songs I hear on the radio, recipes, story ideas, sports stats (I feel if I write down cool stuff I witness at ballgames then I can say I was there…), etc. They hold up better than the run of the mill stuff you get at drug stores, and have that handy dandy pocket for business cards, etc.

45 Native Son August 24, 2010 at 9:40 am

With all due respect to the men who have gone electronic, My combination of paper notebook with pen or pencil has NEVER surprised me with dead batteries. Anyone who’s had to reenter everything into a Palm knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I’m a hybrid-user. The old Palm, my company Blackberry and the bound paper & pen/pencil notebook are generally with me. The use of each device depends upon the task at hand and the type of information I need to keep track of.

46 jeff August 24, 2010 at 9:43 am

A very enjoyable post, Brett. In my own efforts to keep something on hand to jot thoughts down on, yet not be wasteful of resources, I often assemble a notebook out of scrap paper in my office. Any sheet of paper that I am forced to print at work ends up in my scrap pile when I no longer need it, and by using the blank side I have a fully available sheet of paper. Cut the sheet into fourths, or sixths, or whatever size, slap a binder clip or rubber band around the top edge, and you’ve got a great notebook.

One question I have for the group: what do you write with? I find that keeping a stack of paper or pad in my back pocket is no problem because it can flex if I am seated or standing. But carrying a bulky pen in my pocket ALL the time can be inconvenient, and often breaks the nice clean line of slacks. Do you like small “golf course” pencils, mini-pens? What?

47 CoffeeZombie August 24, 2010 at 9:45 am

I’ve carried notebooks for a while, though I rarely seem to have any reason to write in them. I tried keeping a notebook of chess matches once, so I could go back and study to see what I did wrong in the game, but it’s a bit of a distraction to write down the moves while trying to decide on the next one. Also, I don’t get the chance to play very often (most people I know are boring and would rather watch TV or play video games).

The best use I’ve had in keeping a notebook is in coffee roasting. When I have the time (I often end up roasting on Monday morning, so I don’t have time before work to write stuff down), I will record how much coffee I roasted, what the temp in the roasting chamber was, how long to first crack, total roast time, etc., and then I’ll write down any thoughts about the roasting process (did it seem to take a long time to get through first crack, was there a funny smell, did the beans take forever to cool, etc.), and thoughts about the resulting coffee.

I really need to start taking those notes again.

Josh’s comment has insipred me, however, as I am an aspiring amateur mechanic (i.e., I do whatever I can on my own cars); I should keep some “shop notes,” and write down lessons learned, procedures, etc.

48 Turling August 24, 2010 at 9:51 am

People’s names and book recommendations. The number of times I’ve asked myself, “what was that title again?” is astounding. I started carrying a pocket notebook about two months ago, and I alreay have two dozen book recommendations and a number of movie’s. You’ll also be suprised how often you use it for just about everything, once you remember you have it. Nice post.

49 Andrew August 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

Dudes, that’s what an iPhone is for. (Ok, maybe not the Pocket Knife bit and a snot smeared screen might be limiting). I agree on the Moleskine though, lot’s of empty ones on coffee shop tables….

50 Brad August 24, 2010 at 10:10 am

My freshman year at college it was required to carry a notebook in your back pocket and it is something I still do today. As someone mentioned earlier, the rite in the rain notebooks are great. Yes, they are more expensive but will stay intact and writable even in rain storms. I keep a small one for tasks and everything for day to day, and a larger one for when I’m out in the field. You never know when you have something urgent to write down.

51 Jordan M. Poss August 24, 2010 at 10:11 am

I carry two of the small-sized Moleskines at all times. One with blank pages for sketching or doodling, and the other with lined pages for writing. I’ve written enormous chunks of stories in longhand in those notebooks. Great post.

52 Black and Blue Man August 24, 2010 at 10:33 am

Dave August 23, 2010 at 9:32 pm
“It may be big in the States, but down in Oz its certainly a rarity. People think its an oddity that I carry a notepad. But I love it!”

Don’t worry, Dave – you’re not alone here Down Under! :)

Ever since the early 1990s when I entered my 20s, I’ve always carried a pocket notebook – and that’s why i must always buy shirts with pockets.

I use my notebook for so many things including (but not limited to) taking notes, recording telephone numbers, making to-do lists and writing down directions so i can remember how to get somewhere new.

I still carry my previous notebook in my backpack because it contains valuable information that I sometimes still need.

I have entered the digital age, but it’s not always easy to whip out your laptop PC when you need to quickly write something down. As well, after bad experiences several years ago with the short battery-lives of Compaq iPAQs, it’s still good to have a pen-and-paper backup (which is also why I replaced my last iPAQ with a Debden DayPlanner).

jeff August 24, 2010 at 9:43 am
“One question I have for the group: what do you write with?…Do you like small “golf course” pencils, mini-pens? What?”

I use a standard blue or black gel pen which I keep in my shirt pocket along with my notebook – size is not an issue, and I like the look of gel.

53 Dan S. August 24, 2010 at 10:39 am

I did this forever – a small composition book and the pen from my Swiss Army knife – and still do on multi-day hikes. But ever since I bought my HTC Evo and found Evernote, I’m hooked. It is far easier than extracting both the pen and the notebook, and I can organize on the fly, if I wish. I can type, record audio, snap a pic, record video, paste a snippet of cut text, save a whole web page or address, and share any of it with anyone, pretty much instantly. The Evo and most other smartphones (unlike the iPhone) have replaceable batteries, and extra charging cables (car, AC, and USB) are pretty cheap. And the whole thing syncs up to the cloud, so that it’s instantly saved, and readily available.

Summary: if you don’t have a smartphone, carry a notebook. If you do, save the space and use the tools you have available.

54 Memo G. August 24, 2010 at 10:46 am

I have used moleskines for almost 4 years now and before that I used other types of notebooks… I have really bad memory and honestly there are things I don’t want to use my brain to remember so I write them down. I keep track of my tasks this way and have even come up with my own, personalized system.

You can view an explanation of my system at

55 Stanley Berhorst August 24, 2010 at 11:05 am

I have tried to use my smart phone but have found they are not so smart much like my Palm Tx. I used to keep a notebook and would write down lots of notes at work but some were keepers and some were not so I ended up with a notebook half full of things to keep and alot of scratched out items. Now I use pocketmods and if there is something worth keeping I write it down in a composistion book that cost $.25. If you print on both sides you can make it to last 2 days or 2 weeks whatever your needs.

56 Richard Williams August 24, 2010 at 11:11 am
57 Jared August 24, 2010 at 11:23 am

@ jeff

I also use a standard pen. I carry a nice Cross pen with me at all times, so I just use that.

I have a preference for things that exist in the “real” world. I like things I can touch and feel and don’t depend on microprocessors, batteries or motherboards. I have to use a computer so much that it makes every “real” experience even so much sweeter. So, I love keeping a “meatspace” pad for scribblin’ and doodlin’. I keep nearly the entirety of my short-term memory between my cheap-o imitation Moleskine and sticky notes.

Another issue with going digital in note-keeping is the distraction factor. Sure, I pulled up my iPhone to jot a note down, but, oh yeah, I’ll check my email while I’m on here. Oh, I love Super Zombie Monkey Slayers: Coming of the Sponge. I’ll just play a couple of rounds. And, thirty minutes later: Now, what the hell did I originally get this iPhone out for?

58 Stewart August 24, 2010 at 11:27 am

Here are possibly the best field note books around.
Field Notes
They come with tons of goodies when you buy them. I got the 50 states brand. I can vouch that they are very durable and everything, mine got rained on, and bent up. I really recommend them.

59 Adam Sell August 24, 2010 at 11:30 am

I keep a notebook mostly as a naturalist. I have been watching birds since I was a child and have found that taking field notes has increased my knowledge of the outdoors and especially birds. When I find a rare bird (like the one I did last week) the most important thing I do is observe and take notes. I use a notebook that is water resistant and it has been put to the test in some horrible weather on the coast. I have found that keeping notes makes me an even more observant naturalist. I also have been keeping a notebook around for my daily musings. I find that writing out what you think can make one’s brain and thought life sharper. Instead of letting ideas ruminate into nothing, the process of writing down those thoughts can lead to real conclusions.

60 Ryan August 24, 2010 at 11:38 am

I’ve noticed a resurgence with DIY notebook making and formatting at, and so I’ve started to carry a notebook with me. I needed portability (and something budget-friendly), so I just used a weekly planner that I received from a friend. It fits in my back pocket, and with a thin rubber band, I can easily keep my place. For pens, I would have liked to use the Lamy Pico , but since it’s so expensive, I opted for a Zebra telescopic pen which does the job.

I’ve seen a lot of good things in terms of Field Notes, so I think I’ll get that as my next notebook, since it’s taking a surprisingly long time to find a decent back-pocket-sized replacement for the pocket calendar. My only qualm with the calendar is that there’s not enough room to write, as they have littered the pages with quotes and other random things.

61 RKretsch August 24, 2010 at 11:44 am

My father used to keep a small notepad in his pocket at all times, so as I was growing up, it was a common sight to see him writing in it every now and then. Unfortunately, I never got to find out what he kept in his notes, but I do know he used it alot. Especially when he was doing carpentry. As I reached adulthood, I picked up the habit from him, though I didnt carry it as consistantly as he did and soon enough I stopped carrying one…. that is up until about a year ago. I actually have friends that think its odd to carry a note pad… little do they know I think its odd NOT to carry one. In today’s world, we have smart phones with “note pad” features, and although I do use the one in my iPhone from time to time, nothing beats hand writing in your own personal note pad. Not to mention, scribbling sketches of ideas is much easier, too.

Thanks for this article. It brought back fond memories of the manilest person I will ever meet… my father.

62 Notebook Stories August 24, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I love all the examples of notebook use! Nice research!

63 Craig August 24, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I carry a small moleskin around to jot down my ideas. I wish there was something in between a pricey moleskin and the cheapo drug store notebooks.

64 Gianpaolo Pietri | Simply Optimal August 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Great post Brett.

I am an architect and a blogger, and I try to carry a pocket book with me at all times. I like them so much, I’ve been to collect all different types of portable recording devices.

I use my pocketbook for everything from writing out ideas for blog posts, books, projects, to keeping todo lists, to even drawing sketches of buildings I like or projects I am working on. They are an invaluable tool in both my business and personal arsenal.

I’m glad to see you debunk the myth behing the moleskin. That being said, I like the way they are made. I’d love to buy an American-made alternative and see that some readers have recommended some. I will look into them.

65 Adventure-Some Matthew August 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I’ve always carried some sort of paper with me. If not a notebook, at least a folded up piece of paper. I’m always jotting down ideas that I come up with, business ideas/tweaks, projects I’d like to try, things to make, etc.

I love the specific examples that you gave, thanks!

66 Lincoln August 24, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I don’t carry a notebook per se, but I do use the notepad function on my cell phone many times during the day. With the full keyboard it is faster than writing for me (& always legible!), and perfect for remembering grocery lists, to do lists, things to research, and the other thousand small daily things that I think of that are quickly forgotten if not written down.

67 icecycle66 August 24, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Any essayist worth his weight in ink will keep a notebook, or some such device, within hands reach at all times. I keep several in my truck, many scattered about my residence, and half a dozen or so on my desk at work. They are mostly spiral bound so that I can also keep pens attached to them. Those that aren’t spiral have homemade pen holders attached to them.

At the most unexpected times topics or points of essay present themselves. I will hear conversations about one topic that spark a point that must be written down so that I may elaborate upon it at a later time.

The note pads also work well for the musician in me. Whenever a muse lights the sound in my mind I can make annotations of the music before its fleeting nature takes hold and leaves forever.

68 derrick August 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I use a stack of 30 or so index cards clipped together with a binder clip, plus a Lamy Al-Star fountain pen with waterproof blue ink.

Each card is a project. When I complete the project, I date the card, mark it completed, and file the card in a long 3×5 filebox by date. I have been using the system for several years, and it’s neat to go back and look at past projects and ways of doing things.

I have found that index cards are more flexible and cheaper than pocket notebooks, and you can buy notecards made in the US still.

Here’s the fileboxes I use:

69 Ryan Stefani August 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm

As a student, manager, and comedian I write everything down. Write jokes, take notes and give information to customers by handing them the page. Glad to hear I’m on my way to be a man!

70 Finn Olbinski August 24, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I started carrying around a pen & pad in my shirt pocket as a direct result of Thomas Pynchon. Haven’t looked back since.

71 Stephen Smith August 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I love my little Fieldnotes (or facsimile) notebooks! They fit right in my back pocket and come in very handy for jotting down notes for following up when I meet new people or see something interesting. My smartphone often serves a similar purpose, but there are times that it looks rude to bring it out and start typing away.

72 Cynthia August 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm

As an artist, I find notebooks and sketchbooks indispensable. I keep one in my purse or pocket for those times when I am inspired to sketch a detail or thought that I will find useful in my next project. It is also useful for recording beautiful color combinations or designs I see in the world around me.

73 Chris August 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

LOVE THE NUTONE BOOK! I worked there until the plant closed in Cincinnati. That’s really cool.

74 Rich Saunders August 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm

What do I use it for? Everything.

“We write things down so we don’t have to remember them.”

75 Matt August 24, 2010 at 4:17 pm


The pen I always carry with me is a Zebra F-402. They cost 3 bucks or so, but are made of metal and look and write very nicely. I often get complimented on my pen, and if it gets lost or somebody walks off with one in hand it isn’t a big deal.

76 PeterPansDad August 24, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I carried a notebook for years. I kept my budget in it and went through several notebooks before I paid off all my debt. Still no debt but maybe I’ll start carrying it again for ideas, plans and to-do’s. Fine tip sharpie doesn’t smudge or fade. It does bleed through so you need to put a loose sheet behind each page.

77 Mack Hall August 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I discovered Moleskine notebooks while they were made in Italy. I regret that they are now made in China, but I still use them and give them.

In C. S. Lewis’ PRINCE CASPIAN King Peter asks Dr. Cornelius (the quote might not be exact): “Have you a pen and paper, Master Doctor?” In reply Doctor Cornelius responds with “A scholar is never without them, Your Majesty.”

78 Michael August 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm

@ Stewart #58: I have no experience with Field Notes, but my, that is a beautiful site. I adore the colors and fonts. Feels wholesome, old-fashioned, and reliable.

79 RabaDat August 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I keep one of these in my pocket for its size and price.

80 tommy August 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm

call me a weirdo, but this is one of the best blog posts i’ve ever read. thanks for all the research that went into it! (PS: my pocket notebook of choice? a 3×5 spiral Rite-in-the-Rain notebook with gridlines. perfectly fits and flexes in the old back pocket, plus i can take it to the beach with no issues. and it doesn’t cost $12.)

81 Ryan Prochaska August 24, 2010 at 6:39 pm

As a business owner, I always kept some paper and a small space pen (a gift for performing a friend’s wedding) in my pocket. It was later replaced by a PDA.

While stationed in Mcmurdo Station, Antarctica, I kept notes on what we referred to as a “green brain”. It was a small, green notebook that helped when the cold and dark would keep the brain from performing properly. I developed quite the system for referencing different information within it.

As a preservationist for the National Park Service, I was happy to discover that the “green brain” was standard stock for government work. I was happy to have my mindful companion back in my pocket.

Every morning, along with a blue handkerchief, keys, a leatherman, and a pen, the green brain takes it’s place in my left chest pocket of my uniform.

82 Gus August 24, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I have been carrying a black leather pocket notebook holder for over a decade. It flips open and can actually hold two notebooks. It has been extremely useful over the years. I am a former police Officer and did keep two notebooks init. My partner liked my filing system, one book for lies the public told me and one for lies the Department told me. As a Firefighter it is still pretty handy. The pockets which hold the notebooks will also hold business cards I have been given.

83 William Hoffknecht August 24, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Hey, i know I love my Moleskine notebooks. I was actually pleased to see that the Saddleback Leather company that sponsors your site here has started making Moleskine covers! I want one!

84 gymflake August 25, 2010 at 12:10 am

I keep mine in my left side back pocket….just like my dad….granddad and all the other men in my family. I have notebooks from the early 1920′s and they are my most valued possession. They include so many thoughts and ideas and “tricks of the trade” so to speak that they in Themistocles are priceless. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana, North Montana, and the information included in these notebooks have kept me alive and inspired! I highly recommend that every one should keep one handy no matter the profession! This is a journal of one’s life….I have so many tools because of them…It’s better than a will!!

85 Gary Venema August 25, 2010 at 12:19 am

I hate how the cell phone/smart phone has entered and corrupted our society, or perhaps I just hate how people rudely misuse new technology. But as mentioned earlier, this is an ideal dual use item, and that in itself is manly.

I really don’t like the idea of carrying around pad and pen all the time, just another item to make sure I have and/or don’t forget. Though now as my memory seems to have started going downhill since I hit 30…. I’ve thought about carrying pad and pen around… or getting an I-phone. Both seem repugnant to me, but at least one is old school enough for me to consider.

86 Ken August 25, 2010 at 12:20 am

Great article, Brett. Phones and PDA’s are great, but there is really no substitution for a paper notebook and pen or pencil. Moleskine’s may use some slick marketing, but they really are great notebooks. It’s in their construction and the type of paper they use. Field Notes are fantastic as well, but are quite a bit harder to find locally. Space Pens are great and travel well, but for my money nothing beats a good old-fashioned cedar wood pencil. A quick search on this site for Ben Franklin will yield some additional insights into the use of notebooks. The main thing is to use them, whatever your purpose may be. Consistent use may surprise you with what you may learn about yourself and the way you look at the world…

87 Kaizer Billimoria August 25, 2010 at 1:15 am

This is a nice post. I am inspired to carry a small notebook and a pen. Also not to forget that the site itself is awesome. A refreshingly good manner and style of language along with useful information. My congratulations to the members of your team!

88 Mattias August 25, 2010 at 1:37 am

Along with a smooth fountain pen (for comfortable writing) and a small digital P&S (visual notes), a notebook should reside in the pocket of every man. Can’t go about an ordinary day without any of these. I use my small main notebook as an inbox for anything: lists, goals, names, ideas, worries, quotes, tasks, observations etc. The notes regularly get reviewed and redistributed, if relevant, to thematic notebooks at home: diary, books/reading, house maintenance, photography logbook, finance, and more.
Oh, and Moleskine has the worst paper of all notebooks I’ve tried, especially for ink.

89 Derek Cormier August 25, 2010 at 2:34 am

Excellent Post along with a terrific blog. I mentioned you in a recent post I did entitled “Around the Web in 80 days-Art of Manliness”

Direct link is here….

Keep up the great work.

90 Dominik August 25, 2010 at 6:40 am

That’s a great post in the highly technologized time of smart phones and other electronic gadgets. Even moreso, because every little piece of technology offers some kind of distraction nowadays. Be it social media, email, music or just recent news stories. You can’t really get your mind off of things using one of those (a problem I just wrote a little post about).

I, for one, didn’t think of a “real” notebook until recently, when a (female) friend of mine told me about her multiple moleskine notebooks. I was hooked on the idea of a real-feel notebook I could actually *write* into instantly – although I didn’t really know whether this was the manly way to do it. Now I know, thanks AoM!

91 art August 25, 2010 at 8:14 am

I really need to get back to carrying a notebook. I tried the PDA thing for a while when I was doing field work (engineering), and while it was easy to organize it was useless when someone else needed a piece of paper to take a note. I’m partial to the cheap drugstore variety, since I don’t feel bad about ripping pages out of those.

92 Corey August 25, 2010 at 8:30 am

I’m a missionary and I also use several pocket-size notebooks in random easily accessible places to jot down the needs of people I meet on the fly. Someone asking for help is more certain of being helped if I still remember their request, their contact info and their name by the end of the day. I find the notebook also to be especially helpful to remember things I feel God telling me throughout the day, which are too lengthy to put down in sms form (sent to my wife for safe-keeping) or in the “notes” section of my cell phone.

93 Jerrick August 25, 2010 at 8:37 am

Great post. From reading the comments, this topic is quite sentimental for a number of people. Because of AoM, I have been keeping a journal for the past six months. It has become an invaluable practice.

Carrying a pocket notebook is a great idea. Last night, while my wife and I were at a local bookstore, I picked up a small pocket notepad. This should be a great way to help capture fleeting thoughts throughout the day.

Brett, I’ve told you before, but it is worth repeating – good work and job well done.

94 John August 25, 2010 at 11:51 am

I’m a lawyer and use a pocket notebook to keep track of my phone calls, to make to do lists, record mileage and expenses, and track thoughts on cases and strategies. I also jot down quotes from books I am reading or from something I hear, as well as record Bible verses and my thoughts on them. Its fun to look back at some of my old notebooks and recollect on some of the things I’ve done, read or scene in the past and my hope is that my kids will someday enjoy a transport to my past via my pocket time machine! I enjoy them more than PDAs and the nostalgia of using one with a fountain pen just can’t be beat.

95 Jason August 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I used a pockent notebook every day during my 4 years stint in the Navy. I still have each of them that contain every note, duty, thought, and schematic I ever wrote down. It’s really cool to go back and l look in them; they are kind of a time capsule. Not sure why I stopped carrying one to be honest. Perhaps the onset of cell phone’s “memo pad”.

96 Brian August 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

You’ll be happy to know that the tradition of the pocket notebook never died in the oilfield! Except we call them tally books. Any drilling hand worth his salt is never without his tally book. It can be used on location to keep track of pipe tallies (it’s original purpose), take messages, make to-do lists, keep track of operations, and store any other information regarding the drilling of a well. A truly good hand can open up his tally book and tell you everything that has happened on a well.

I’ve even carried this over into my personal life. Tally books are perfect for taking information down on the run, making grocery lists, and any number of other things. And the great thing is that they’re free! Every vendor hands them out with their company information on them!

(you can always tell a drilling hand because one pocket has the permanent rectangular imprint of a tally book and the other has the circular imprint of a can of chew!)

97 Mike D August 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm

I’m an aspiring writer. But, my “real” job is in a factory. I carry a pocket notebook “in the plant” to jot down machine settings or to have as a scratch pad for calculations, or to jot down anything I want to remember for the future. From a writing perspective, I jot down ideas for stories or articles, potential publications to query, etc. The cool thing was that a few years ago, I was trying to work on developing leadership skills, and whenever something pertinent to leadership popped into my mind, I jotted it down. This lessons became the basis for one of my first published articles.

98 Robert Glenn August 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm

When I was in the Navy I Carried a small green notebook that supply would hand out, it was just to write down anything of importance. You always look on top of things if someone important asks a question and while everyone else has a blank stare you confidentally pull out your notebook, flip right to the page with the needed info and calmly despence the info needed. It’s even better if the information is right. Well One day my chief, who was a techy kind of guy, was thumbing through his blackberry trying to find his plan for the days maintenance. Being the prankster that I am, I said, “Chief I just got one of those, not quite as new as yours but still pretty cool.” I whipped out my notebook and said, ” here I’ll bluetooth the POD (plan of the day) to you.” I tore out a paper and crumbled it up and tossed it to him. It was good for a few laughs.

99 Steve P August 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I’m a sucker for cool little notebooks, and have been picking them up for years. I love the look and feel of the Field Notes books, and have also made the fold-your-own booklets. Just flipped through my current Field Notes, and it contains such disparate items as a bucket list of places I want to visit, a page of obscene Russian phrases, as well as various alphabets (including Morse code, Braille, Greek, Cyrillic, and Phoenician!)

100 bull August 25, 2010 at 7:47 pm

I asked my orthopedist (MD, PhD) dad once why he carried his week-at-a-glance notebook. His answer: ‘I’d lose my patients.’ After I figured out he didn’t mean ‘patience’ he explained how it helped him make sure the right person got the right care. I took on his habbit soon after.

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