On Stationery

When you have too many notebooks, and you decide to write about them instead of in them

If there are any enduring loves in my life, one of them would have to be stationery.

It’s simple: I’ve been keeping some kind of paper journal since I was twelve, and this will probably continue until I die. There have been many gaps in those pages over the years, don’t get me wrong; but even then, there was always a journal waiting patiently for me to come back. A whole life without even the option or inclination to reach for pen and paper? Unimaginable.

Do I write down anything “significant,” worth saving? Who knows. In many ways, keeping a notebook hasn’t been writing so much as thinking, using pen and paper to set out the swirl of thoughts in my head into something tangible, and therefore something easier to make sense of.

But I’ve already touched on that before. Today I’m here to think about the material aspects of it all.

Or: It is a truth universally acknowledged that any compulsive journal-keeper with disposable income must eventually develop some degree of pickiness over their tools.

What I write with

Take pens, for example. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I care about ink: colour, resistance to feathering1the tendency to get ragged edges in lines due to ink spreading across paper and bleed2the tendency to soak through to the other side of a page, how quickly it dries.

I also care, as it turns out, about how a pen feels on paper. Is there feedback—a palpable scratching against the paper grain? Is the tip thin enough to make lines feel sharp rather than clumsy? Does it flow, or does it skitter across the page?

My favourite pens have vibrant colours (even if I usually choose black), don’t smudge or run through a page, and write with precision — crisp and smooth on the paper, so it feels like I have more control over how the lines fill the page.

It’s a bit like fonts, I guess: each pen has a particular character to it.

These are the ones I’ve settled on for now. They range from disposable to not-so-much; they cover everything from “handy throwaway pen for everyday use” and “office workhorse” (the first two pens) to “dependable journal companions with archival quality ink that won’t give me a heart attack if I lose them on a trip” (the last two).

I’ve carried the Mont Blanc one with me for close to 5 years now, and I have enough Zebra Sarasa refills to make sure I will write with one for life.

They are all gel pens.

People have asked me why I don’t write with a fountain pen. The simple answer is that fountain pens overcomplicate the process for me.

I like the whole idea of fountain pens. They’re often great examples of practical craftsmanship, and I’ve lost quite a few hours reading about people’s opinions on ink quality, nibs, etc. But this is exactly the problem.

The best pen, at least for me, is one that can disappear into the motions of my everyday life without being fussed over.

Where I write

I will write on anything I can find, of course. When I was a kid, I’d scribble on everything—the backs of marked papers; receipts; the flyleaf of whatever book I had on hand, in a pinch. Today, I’m lucky enough to have a bit more choice in the matter, and to have tested enough options to have formed Opinions.

For example: Moleskins are overrated.

Let’s just get that out of the way. Like most stationery nerds, Moleskines were probably the first name I learned to take note of, when I was just starting to care about paper quality. The thing is that, these days, paper quality is exactly why these notebooks have been stricken off my list.

For me, a good notebook has to have thick, sturdy pages; if we’re being exact here, the minimum is 80gsm. Anything less than that is too thin. (At this point, I feel obliged to mention that Moleskine uses 70gsm paper.) Gel pens will bleed through, or there will be so much ghosting3when you can see the writing from the opposite side of the paper, even if it doesn’t quite soak through that it won’t be worth writing on both sides of the page — in short, a waste.

So: The paper must be resistant to bleed and feathering. (Ink quality is only one part of the equation!) It must be acid-free and pH-neutral, because acidic paper breaks down and turns brittle over time. There has to be some texture to it, too — some “tooth” to the surface, so that the pen has some grip while writing, and it doesn’t feel like you have to fight to keep your lines from gliding clean off the page.

I prefer blank notebooks, with ivory- or cream-coloured pages. Grid ones also have their uses; dot-grid is much more preferable to the usual full-line grids, because the dots are understated enough not to dominate the space. My handwriting is very small, most of the time, so lined notebooks are a waste of space. Whatever the paper type, I’ve found A5 size to be most comfortable. Any smaller and it feels restrictive; any larger and I feel like I’m drowning in the blank space.

Finally, a notebook has to have a stitched spine, so that it can lay flat when opened. I don’t want to have to keep fighting to write comfortably, and I resent any manufacturer that forces me to break a notebook’s spine to get it to stay put.

Most other bells and whistles are nice to have, but not essential. Many journals try to pull ahead of the competition with features like pen loops, index pages, expandable pockets on the inside covers. These can improve the journal-keeping experience, sure, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to the paper.

I’ve tested quite a few notebooks over the years. Some of the ones that have stayed with me:

These are actually refills for the Alunsina Kislap journal, which uses the same system as the popular Traveler’s Notebook journals. Essentially you get a leather cover that can be filled—and refilled!—with your notebook(s) of choice: blank, lined, dot-grid.

The full journal I used to carry was a sturdy, full-grain leather cover that housed three notebooks: two blank ones and a dot-grid. It got a bit too heavy to carry around once I’d filled all three notebooks, so the last time I was organising my things at my parents’ house, I decided to carry a few loose refills back to Singapore and just come back for the full journal next time. That was in March 2020. 🙂

Anyway, I love the Alunsina team, because they’re a small business and they handcraft all their journals with such obvious care and skill. The paper is 85gsm4Take that, Moleskine! Though there is a fair bit of ghosting on this page, since I wrote too heavily on the reverse, acid-free, and made of ecological pulp, sourced from Italy. They hand-cut all the pages and bind the refills themselves. Likewise, they treat and cut all the leather themselves, too. I exchanged some emails with them about their journals years ago, when I first got mine, and they struck me as lovely people wholeheartedly committed to their craft.

Rhodia notebooks have always received praises from most journal communities I’ve checked out, largely because of the paper quality: 90gsm, acid-free, resistant to bleed and feathering. The one I have is a softbound one with dot-grid pages, and it’s a fantastic notebook for language learning notes. Since I’m studying Mandarin Chinese and Korean (and have divided the notebook into different sections for these), the dot-grid is especially helpful for writing characters.

Midori notebooks are also widely regarded as one of the best options when it comes to paper quality, so it’s up next in my notebook queue. I don’t have much to say about this one yet, but I’m really excited to try it.

Why? Partly because of this, my current journal: a Leuchtturm1917 that’s been a bit of a letdown.

To its credit, this journal has withstood a lot — being carried in the rain, knocked around in luggage, scratched by cats, etc.

From what I can tell, Leuchtturm1917 is, like Moleskine, one of the more well-known journal brands, especially for bullet journal enthusiasts. I can see why — there are a lot of small touches here and there that make this a handy notebook to carry around. Expandable pockets, numbered pages, a table of contents/index page up front, ribbon bookmarks, even little stickers to label the spine.

The construction is impeccable. The paper quality is not.

And like I said, in the end, it all comes down to the paper. Despite supposedly using 80gsm paper, the notebook I got suffered from a fair bit of ghosting, to the point that I decided not to write on the reverse of each page. The texture of the paper itself was also a bit off—smooth and somewhat “damp,” in that it seemed to resist ink absorption and felt turgid to write on.

Here’s What Our Parents Never Taught Us by Shinji Moon. The full poem is lovely and can be read here

Strangely enough, because I didn’t like the journal quite as much, I’ve found myself using it more — or at least, being freer about pasting in bits and pieces of tickets, photos, etc to go with what I’m writing. It’s a bit like my aversion to fountain pens, I guess: when I like a journal too much, I fuss over the material to the point that I hold back from using it to the fullest. The Leuchtturm, in this case, can get carried along in the bruising currents of everyday life precisely because I’ve found it so dismissible, lol.

The only good tools are the ones you’re using

The Leuchtturm, I guess, has been a lesson in the limits of pickiness. Paper quality, ink resistance, and other preferences aside, the real bottomline here is drawn by practicality — or, if it’s fine to sound loftier, purpose.

How useful are these tools to you?

Do they allow you to do what you want to do?

These are the only questions that really matter. I can write several hundred words about what I’m looking for in a pen or a notebook, but if the ideal journal can never be carried with me and is absent when I need to write something down, then what’s the point? Even matters of quality ultimately bow to expedience.