Do you use a notebook or a diary? I mean, in the old fashioned sense. As in do you carry around a little wedge of paper for noting down life’s irritations, necessities or incidentals? It’s rare these days – iPhone notes are saved forever in the cyber clouds, and pockets are less amenable to the bump of a book. But notebooks are the repositories of all that is burgeoning, mad, half conceived and hopeful. For writers they store the edges and inspirations of novels, or act as blissful respite from the tyranny of their current project. Artists sketch idly, the busy detail their frenzied web of appointments, geniuses note down epoch changing ideas. History is to be found in notebooks and diaries; history as it happened, fervently retold through the eyes of those within it, or blithely recounted as just another day.
"Notebooks are the repositories of all that is burgeoning, mad, half conceived and hopeful"
As long as there have been notebooks, people have had their favourite brands – the perennially popular Moleskine was a favourite of the early 20th century Parisian bohemian, while Smythson has long earned the patronage of the wealthy and renowned – as demonstrated in their 2013 exhibition in celebration of the legacy of their beloved Panama diary. And with AnOthermag.com’s #WordWeek in full swing, there was no better time to remember the usefulness and joy of this age old tool, through the pages of the best diaries, journals and sketchbooks of the past.
Marilyn Monroe was the world’s favourite pin-up, a ravishing sensual blonde who was every man’s dream – yet she was desperate to be considered for her brain as much as her pneumatic curves. She had an extensive personal library, and kept notebooks for much of her life, filled with poetry, recipes and notes. This rather heartbreaking list below was made in 1955, when she was 29, detailing her New Year’s resolutions – the last note reading: “try to enjoy myself when I can — I’ll be miserable enough as it is.”
Sigmund Freud, the preeminent psychoanalyst and father of most of our complexes, was a fan of the Smythson Panama diaries through the 1930s, filling their pages with encounters with the likes of Dalí, Woolf and H.G. Wells. This copy, from 1938, records the last year of his life in an exuberant scrawl.
Sir Hardy Amies
Best known as the official dressmaker to the Queen, Sir Hardy Amies received many of his Panamas from his friend Lady Hulse, who had them embossed with “Dearest Hardy”. He used his books to detail his many appointments and extensive foreign travel.
One of Joan Didion’s best loved, and most quoted, essays is titled, “On Keeping a Notebook”. Within, she muses on her reasons and motivations for storing her thoughts away inside the pages of a book. “[T]he point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking”, she confesses. “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth…” And most of all, it is a way of remembering who we are: “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”
Ernest Hemingway is perhaps the world’s most famous ambassador of the notebook, a feeling immortalised in A Moveable Feast – his vividly moving depiction of Paris in the 20s. The whole book is a paean to the exhilaration of being young, talented and in love, summed up in the line: “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
Katharine Hepburn was another Panama fan, ordering personalised address books with “London, California, New York” plus her initials on the cover, and filling them with the addresses of Sir Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy.
In 1937, during the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin made a rough line sketch in his notebook depicting a rather straggly “tree” titled, “I think”. This would turn out to be the so-called Tree of Life, a rough depiction of the relationships among groups of organisms, which was the root of his world-changing theory of evolution.
Virginia Woolf enjoyed writing her diary so much that it was almost a source of guilt, as she bemoaned her time spent writing up the day rather than working on her latest book. But it was a habit she began in 1915 and continued through her life, the final entry being made four days before her death. In the pages, she mused on how writing the diary “loosens the ligaments…Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.” She says, “Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener?” – a poignant reminder of the depression that dogged her through her life.
Picasso used his notebooks largely to draw preliminary ideas for the likes of Guernica and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – the latter for which he made 809 sketches before starting to paint. But in 1932-35, in what he called “the worst time of my life”, he stopped painting altogether, unable to cope with the pressure. But according to his friend Jaime Sabartes , “In order to occupy his imagination, he wrote-with a pen if he found one handy, or a small stub of pencil-in a little notebook which he carried about with him in his pocket. He wrote everywhere.”
The exclusive artworks created by Quentin Jones for the Smythson Panama Legacy exhibition will be on show at Smythson's Sloane Square store from August 11 – September 8 2014.