The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men

A few weeks ago, we published an article on the Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook. For that piece, we dug through old books to find references to how pocket notebooks had been used this past century by men in different walks of life. In the process of compiling those excerpts, we came across intriguing references to how some of the famous men of history used their pocket notebooks and decided to put together a whole post exploring that subject.

The result is this look at how 20 famous men used their pocket notebooks. The list is hardly comprehensive; the practice was so widespread among eminent men that it would likely be easier to compile a list of famous men who did not use them, than did. And the choices are a bit eccentric; men who were famous for their interesting and numerous notebooks are well-represented but also included are a few from the past and present that just happened to cross our path during the course of our research. Where images of the notebooks were available they have been shown; in their absence a description will have to do. These caveats aside, we hope you will find reading about this manly practice as inspiring and fascinating as researching and writing about it was for us.

Mark Twain

Twain’s first pocket notebooks were purchased in 1857 at the age of 21 during his training to become the “cub” pilot of a steamboat on the Mississippi River. He felt confident that the job would be fairly easy to learn but found he could not remember the instructions his teacher, Horace Bixby, imparted to him. Bixby advised Clemens, “My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.” Clemens accepted Bixby’s advice and thus began a lifelong relationship with the pocket notebook.

Twain’s notebook as a cub pilot

Twain kept 40-50 pocket notebooks over four decades of his life. He often began one before embarking on a trip. He filled the notebooks with observations of people he met, thoughts on religion and politics, drawings and sketches of what he saw on his travels, potential plots for books, and even ideas for inventions (he filed 3 patents during his lifetime). Many of his entries consist of the short, witty, pithy sentences he is famous for. He felt that if he did not write such things down as they came to his mind he would quickly forget them. He would also record little snippets in his notebooks of what had happened that day, such as what he had eaten and who he had seen. And finally, he wrote dirty jokes in the back of them.

Listing ideas for a title page.

Figuring out a light year.

He had his leather bound notebooks custom made according to his own design idea. Each page had a tab; once a page had been used, he would tear off its tab, allowing him to easily find the next blank page for his jottings:

Alexis de Tocqueville

On his two year tour of America and Canada, Tocqueville’s most important tools were the notebooks he made himself by folding and stitching sheets of paper together. In all, he filled 15 notebooks with his observations, thoughts, and impressions of his travels through North America. He organized his notebook pages into alphabetized headings like “Jury” and “Bankruptcy” and also kept a section for conversations and interviews. Two of his notebooks were exclusively devoted to legal issues. As he sat upon stagecoaches and steamboats, he would wrestle with the notes and reflections he had made, trying to distill out a “general truth” that tied them together and pointed to a more important and overarching idea. The result of this brain sweat were insights about the American people that still ring true to this day; the result of his notebooking keeping was Democracy in America; many of his notes made it verbatim into that classic book.

George S. Patton

Patton’s habit of pocket notebook keeping began after his freshman year at West Point. His first year had not gone well; he struggled with dyslexia and failed mathematics, forcing him to repeat his “plebe” year in the fall. He returned to school in 1905 with a steely dedication to this time be a success, and he started a small black leather notebook to help keep himself on track. He used his notebook to record daily happenings, explore ideas of leadership and war strategy, draw diagrams, and even pen poetry on love. But its most important use was as a place to write down the affirmations and principles that would guide his journey toward his ultimate goal- becoming a great general:

“Do your damdest always.”

“Always do more than is required of you.”

“You can be what you will to be.”

In 1921 Patton began another important pocket notebook-this time a field notebook where he complied his thoughts on war and the qualities of successful soldiers-ideas that had been percolating during the first decade of his military career. On the notebook’s cover page he wrote: “SUCCESS IN WAR DEPENDS UPON THE GOLDEN RULE OF WAR. SPEED-SIMPLICTY-BOLDNESS.” The pages of the notebook were filled with Patton’s maxims, such as:

“War means fighting. Fighting means killing, not digging trenches.”

“Find the enemy, attack him, invade his land, raise hell while you’re at it.”

“Officers must be made to care for their men. That is the Sole Duty of All Officers.”

But this tough general didn’t just use his field book for battlefield musings.

During WWII, a young German priest was surprised to come upon Patton sitting in a medieval church which had been miraculously spared destruction. The hardened general sat in a pew with his notebook and a pencil, quietly contemplating and sketching the stained glass windows.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, a devoted early riser, would begin each day by taking measurements of the weather such as temperature, wind speed, and precipitation. And wherever he found himself in the world, whether at Monticello, France, or the White House, he would also make notes of things like the migration of birds, the growth of plants and flowers, and observations on geography and climate. To take these measurements, he carried a whole host of tools in his pocket, including a thermometer, a surveying compass, a level, writing instruments, and even a mini globe. He also carried a small notebook made up of ivory leaves on which to record his observations. He would write down his measurements in pencil and in the evening transfer the data to seven large notebooks, each devoted to a different subject. He would then erase the ivory plates, readying them for another day of scientific inquiry.

George Lucas

While working on a draft for Stars Wars, director George Lucas confined himself for 8 hours a day in his writing room, only knocking off for Walter Cronkite’s Evening News. But he also carried a pocket notebook with him at all times for taking down ideas, words, and plot angles on the go.

While mixing the sound for American Graffiti with Walter Murch, Murch asked Lucas for R2, D2, meaning Reel 2, Dialogue 2. Lucas liked the sound of that phrase and jotted it down in his notebook. This little note would of course come in handy later for the naming of that now famous robot. Names like Jawa and Wookie also began as quick scribbles in Lucas’ notebook.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin began his pocket notebook habit while sailing as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. While exploring the South American coast, he gathered specimens and filled 15 field notebooks with observations on subjects like zoology, botany, archeology, and linguistics, data like latitude and longitude, barometer readings, temperature, and depth soundings, sketches of maps and specimens, and personal information like diary entries, shopping lists, and financial information.

In Notebook B, Darwin began to speculate on the origin of species, here drawing his first evolutionary tree.

Near the end of the voyage he began writing in his Red Notebook, which he devoted to more theoretical speculations. Upon his return, he continued hashing out his theories in a series of notebooks he labeled with letters of the alphabet: A,B,C, D and so on. The notebooks were filled with memorandum to himself on things to look further into, questions he wanted to answer, scientific speculations, notes on the many books he was currently reading, natural observations, sketches, and lists of the books he had read and wanted to read. The notebooks provide a window into how Darwin’s theory of the transmutation of species, well, evolved. But the progression is far from orderly-the entries are chaotically arranged and wide-ranging; they jump from one scientific subject to the next and are interspersed with notes on correspondences and conversations.

When traveling and making field notes, Darwin would write vertically down the page with a pencil as this is easiest when holding the book in one hand and writing with the other. At home in his man room, he would rest the notebook on his desk and write horizontally down the page with a pen. And like Isaac Newton, he would sometimes start in from both ends of the notebook at once and work towards the middle.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven was a devotee of the pocket notebook and was seldom seen without one in hand or pocket. He would walk the city streets and forest paths with it clutched behind his back in case inspiration should come upon him while away from home. His notebook became a memorable part of his appearance and artists who depicted him often included it in their images.

He used his notebooks to write down personal thoughts, maxims, and passages from literature and poetry he wished to remember. But their key use were as musical sketchbooks, where he would compose the beginnings of symphonies and then tinker with them in page after page. He believed that writing stimulated his imagination and even at home he kept a small table by his piano where he would hash out his creations on paper.

His notes and sketches were indecipherable to his associates. Wilhelm Von Lenz wrote in 1855, “When Beethoven was enjoying a beer he might suddenly pull out his notebook and write something in it. ‘Something just occurred to me,’ he would say, sticking it back into his pocket. The ideas that he tossed off separately, with only a few lines and points and without barlines, are hieroglyphics that no one can decipher. Thus in these tiny notebooks he concealed a treasure of ideas.”

Later in life, the notebooks served a more practical purpose-as a means of communication. Because of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his friends would use conversation books to write down what they wished to say to Beethoven, and he would respond orally or in the book as well.

Conversation book

Ernest Hemingway

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener ( a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” –The Moveable Feast

One of Hemingway’s first notebooks. Made in 1908 while he was in elementary school. “I intend to travel and write.”

There has hardly been a more passionate devotee of the pocket notebook than Ernest Hemingway. “I belong to this notebook and this pencil,” he declared. The writer filled notebook after notebook, famously penning new story ideas in the cafes of Paris. He would sit there most of the day, waiting for inspiration to strike:

“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

But Hemingway’s notebooks didn’t just come out at the cafes; he brought them on all his travels and adventures, jotting down notes wherever he was-a bar, a train, a bullfight. He was a keen observer of life, trying to capture the richness and texture of his experiences. He stored sights, sounds, and smells away for future use when they would reemerge as vivid passages in his short stories and novels.

Of course the notebooks were not just for literary purposes-he used them to record expenses, make lists of gifts he wanted to bring back to loved ones from his travels, and even to keep track of his first wife’s menstrual cycles.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, being the singular man that he was, used his pocket notebook for a singular purpose. At the age of 20, Franklin decided to seek the lofty goal of moral perfection. In order to accomplish his goal, Franklin developed and committed himself to a personal improvement program that consisted of living 13 virtues.

In order to keep track of his adherence to these virtues, Franklin made 13 charts in a small notebook he carried with him. The charts consisted of a column for each day of the week and 13 rows marked with the first letter of his 13 virtues. Franklin evaluated himself at the end of every day by placing a dot next to each virtue he had violated. The goal was to minimize the number of marks, thus indicating a “clean” life free of vice.

Franklin would especially focus on one virtue each week by placing that virtue at the top of that week’s chart. Thus, after 13 weeks he had moved through all 13 virtues and would then start the process over again. Initially, he erased the marks to reuse the notebook, but after doing this many times, it started to make holes in the paper. So he then switched to keeping  the charts in a memorandum book made with ivory leaves that could be wiped clean and reused over and over again.

Franklin did several courses of his program in a year, then one course a year, and then one every several years, before finally becoming too busy with other matters to keep it up. “But I always carried my little book with me,” he said. Indeed, he was so proud of this project that even 50 years later while living in France he would take out his ivory tablets to show acquaintances. The notebook was imbued with a bit of mystique; a French friend recalled he was thrilled to have touched “this precious booklet.”

While Ben never attained moral perfection, he felt the project did help him become a better man. When he was 79 years old, Franklin wrote, “I am indebted to my notebook for the happiness of my whole life.”

Larry David

Many comedians carry around a little notebook in order to jot down funny thoughts or observations that might come in handy later. Larry David is particularly devoted to this practice. He always keeps a small notebook in his breast pocket. When he worked on Seinfeld, he would scour his notebook for ideas for the show; episodes like “The Contest” came right out of it.

The notebook continues to provide fodder for his current show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, as described in this excerpt from a New Yorker article:

“Like many comedians, Larry David carries a pocket notebook for writing down ideas. ‘You’re in a parking garage, and Larry’s wallet is empty–he forgot to ask his assistant to go to the cash machine,’ [Robert] Weide, who directs several episodes a year, says. ‘So he says, ‘Shit, I have no money for the valet–could you give me a few bucks?’ So you find yourself giving money to Larry David, who has a few bucks. And then out comes the little notebook.’

‘What would I have done if he hadn’t been there?’ David said. ‘That could have been funny.’

The notebook is a ratty brown thing that looks as if it might have cost forty-nine cents at a stationery store. Its pages are covered with David’s illegible scrawl.”

The notebook even makes appearances in the show itself. In one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which depicts a fictionalized version of David’s life), he leaves his notebook at the neighbors’ house, and when they bring it over, they ask for the $500 reward David had promised inside the front cover to anyone who returned the lost notebook. “Let me get you a check, Sherlock,” David seethes off screen.

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