Notebooks in the Attic
by Steve Leveen
Obsolescence is overrated.
When an old technology is eclipsed by a shiny new rival, the old technology, after some years, will often emerge again, in a romantic crescent of its former self. And how sweet its second light can be.
When electric light made gaslight and candles obsolete, it did so profoundly. But after some decades, gaslight came back—in streetlights twinkling along certain brick streets, and in carriage lights in front of occasional homes. And what home doesn’t have candles? How better to see, when we allow our hearts to guide us, than by candlelight?
Up in the attic
Before they can reemerge, however, old technologies must first enter what I call their Attic Period. That’s when we hastily put them out of sight as we rush headlong into the infatuation stage with our new lovers. After some time, when infatuation evolves into habituation, a seeming accident happens. Somebody goes up to the attic, sees something intriguing in a dim corner, blows off the dust, and smiles.
Often it’s younger people who make the rediscovery. Since they grew up with, and therefore take for granted, the technologies that amazed their elders, their fresh eyes see the old as new. When they add their youthful touch, the old is transformed. Old becomes old school, or vintage or retro, or classic or heirloom or heritage. When these young people proudly show off their new discovery, it can bring a winsome smile to an elder’s face.
Today, thanks to laptops and digital tablets, paper notebooks are already in their Attic Period. I would be more worried if I didn’t understand it was inevitable, and if I didn’t realize that rediscovery is also inevitable.
What’s more, I’m smiling as I write this because I know what the technology cycles can’t: we at Levenger are up in the attic right now with those notebooks—and we’re already designing a stunning renaissance.
Low price, with expectations to match
To see how far paper notebooks might go, it’s helpful to know how they began.
In 20th-century paper notebooks, the first page was like the last page, and like all the pages in between. These notebooks were bricks of identical paper sheets. No one thought much about it. Not all that much was expected of paper notebooks, everyone had to use them, and the main focus was on making them cheap.
Cheap has merit: inexpensive notebooks and other school supplies helped democratize education in America. But few students would have credited their notebooks as sources of inspiration. Most graphic designs used in 20th-century notebooks and notepads actually came from the 19th century. Typical designs had anemic blue horizontal rules and a vertical red line down the left side to make a narrow margin. This pattern, an improvement over blank sheets, was invented by an American judge in 1888, and hasn’t changed much since. Production was, and still is, optimized for high volume and low price.
There were some alternatives, such as graph paper, ledger paper, scientific formats, and so on, but these were few. No one gave much thought to how new graphic designs in notebooks might evoke better thinking and results in commonly performed tasks.
But better page formats did gradually emerge.
One simple but shining example took place in the mid-20th century. Cornell professor Walter Pauk advised his students to prepare for taking class notes by drawing a vertical line on the left side of their notebook sheet to give a margin wide enough to write their own questions. Covering up your notes as you query yourself with your own questions became known as the Cornell System of note-taking.
But why couldn’t paper be printed with this annotation margin to begin with? It could, of course, and was—first by Levenger, so far as I know, and then by others.
Decades after Walter Pauk retired, an enterprising Cornell graduate named Scott Belsky founded a company dedicated to helping creative people execute their ideas. His company, Behance, offers mostly online tools, but Scott and his partner, Metias Correa, also designed well-formatted, colorful paper that helped people focus their attention and follow through more thoroughly with Action Steps. Simple and compelling, the Behance pages gently guide and reward 21st-century users in delightful new ways.
Behance also improved the idea of a grid of faint, gray dots, which combines the benefits of graph paper with the freedom of blank paper. The elegant execution of this dot grid provides a surprisingly flexible tool for today’s note-takers.
A completely different way to make paper more productive is by making the paper itself irresistibly luscious to write on.
A venerable French company named Clairefontaine has been doing this for years. Combine this fine paper and its distinctive purple ink with the Levenger annotation margin design, and you have silky sheets begging for the liquid ink of a fountain pen (another attic find that young people continue to dust off).
There are shaded papers, which for some reason are especially pleasing to write on, and To-Do sheets, and ingenious page formats that help facilitate the discovery of novel solutions.
Under the radar
The big breakthrough in paper notebooks is not any one particular type of page, but rather, the idea that notebooks could, and should, contain different types of sheets from which to choose. This profound change requires both the flexibility of disc-bound notebooks, which allow effortless removal and reinsertion of pages, and a renaissance in paper design.
How ironic: just at the point that, superficially at least, paper notebooks are being made obsolete by digital devices, at Levenger they are experiencing a creative explosion of their own. Perhaps the attic door is already cracking open.
As a historical parallel, we can look to the advent of jet aviation. In the early 1950s, jet engines spawned the Jet Age and predictions that turbo jets would power all our flying, just as nuclear power would provide all our energy needs. Yet 70 years later, prop planes are still flying. They have proved themselves more nimble at low speeds, able to use plentiful, inexpensive airstrips, and as float planes on remote mountain lakes. They are more practical and pleasing for the world of flying that hums under the canopy of high-altitude jets.
An inheritance ready to enjoy now
Digital tablets and smartphones open whole new avenues of human creativity. They can’t be beat for being social, for sharing photos and videos, for being connected to the massive intelligence of the hive. But they enable only part of our human abilities.
Paper notebooks are better for communicating with oneself, superior at enabling quiet reflection and tranquil concentration.
The Attic Period can be seen as a forlorn time, when a former champion is relegated to the shadows. But it can also be a blessing.
When the world no longer depends on a particular technology for everything, when the pressure is off, that technology can recharge and collect itself in the loving hands of its caretakers. What are its inherent strengths? What might it become? What changes elsewhere in the world can be hybridized with it in order to create something at once old and new?
This is what’s happening to paper now—and not just paper notebooks, but paper pads, paper cards, new paper formats, and, of course, paper books. (As Harvard professor Leah Price noted in her essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Every generation rewrites the [paper] book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit.”
Paper is among the most important technologies ever invented. Together with the invention of writing and printing, paper—in the form of notebooks, letters, articles, blueprints and books—has enabled all further technological development and what we know as civilization.
I smile at the thought of young people traipsing up the attic stairs—a bit weary of social networks and mandatory sharing, knowing there is more they can do with their hands than point and click. They will pick up a thoughtfully designed paper notebook and know it’s meant to be private, and want to put their own stamp on it.
The door to the attic is already opening, and what the young people will find is not a dark place but a well-lit loft, full of new kinds of notebooks ready to be individualized—ready for the next steps in imagination that they will provide.
As is true of our planet, we don’t own the heritage technologies we are given; we borrow them from our children.