Monday, June 9, 2008

Moleskine: A Cult Brand and the Renaissance of Journaling

"The Legendary Notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, and Chatwin" proclaims the propaganda from Modo & Modo, the Italian company that produces the current Moleskines. Frankly, I think it's all a load of bollocks. The ORIGINAL "moleskine" stationery was manufactured by an obscure French firm in the city of Tours. The company was apparently not called Moleskine, but British novelist Bruce Chatwin dubbed the little books they manufactured "les carnets moleskines" - or "the notebooks of artifical leather" - in his own writing. That company ceased to exist when its owner passed away in 1986. "Le vrai moleskine n'est plus," Chatwin was told, which translates to: "The true moleskine is no more." How true.

Years later, someone had the brilliant idea of creating an entirely new brand name, completely making up a fake back-story and fabricating a pedigree, and marketing it as a sort of niche, lifestyle brand. "Buy a Moleskine, and you'll be in the company of such artistic greats as Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin!" Now the original "carnets moleskines" from the Tours stationer WERE of course used by Chatwin. However, anyone who bothers to look into the history of this company will realize that there is no evidence that Hemingway, Van Gogh, or Picasso ever purchased from the little French company. What's more, the new Moleskine brand name is not even a direct descendent of the original company. No one involved with the original "vrai moleskine" is involved with the juggernaut it has become today. (And Chatwin passed away several years before the Modo & Modo's recapitulation. Modo & Modo would have you believe that his endorsement of the ORIGINAL notebooks transfers over to the present brand. It does not.)

The truth is, these are just notebooks. And not really exceptional notebooks at that. The paper is of a rather temperamental, onion-skin variety, making them unsuitable for visual journaling or even many fountain pens. Granted, Modo & Modo has their own line of sketchbooks under the Moleskine branding. These, however, are essentially common cardstock. Furthermore, there are precious few pages per (overpriced) book.

The Moleskine's claim to fame rest on three little "innovations" - an elastic band to keep it shut, a cloth bookmark, and a pocket in the back. Granted, these features lend a certain portability to these notebooks... but who are we kidding? None of it justifies the steep pricing and the pretentious, self-congratulatory smirk that comes along with it. There are much finer and more spiffy notebooks out there by the likes of ClaireFontaine, Levengers, and Ciak - which are pricey but, unlike Moleskine, actually worth the money. And if you're really adventurous, you might follow Chatwin's example and find your own little obscure stationer to patronize. Or, if you are strapped for cash, just buy a simple spiral Mead notebook or a humble Canson sketchbook (a company whom Van Gogh and Picasso DID purchase from; for journaling purposes, I recommend the 8 1/2" by 11" Basic Sketchbook in a sturdy, threadbound hardcover). They do just fine.

Now, thing is, I can't be too mad at the people at Modo & Modo. If nothing else, the Moleskine has been a sort of impetus for a Renaissance of journaling. For better or worse, people have bought into this sleek, streamlined, pursuasive marketing campaign with an insatiable vigor. Many turn it into some sort of manifesto of their life's philosophy. As of this writing, entire blogs are devoted to these little black books. The Moleskine fan club has reached near cult proportions.

But if this is what it takes to inspire people to pick up a pen and start documenting their lives, who am I to complain? People on these blogs and websites are actually excited about journaling! Artists have created beautiful works of art out of the sketchbooks or line drawings or painting that stretch from one page to the next. Check out this example from artist Valeria Petrone.

People decorate the simple black books in creative ways with stickers, decoupage, vintage art, and inspiring quotations. There's even an entire section on the site 43folders devoted to Moleskine "hacks."

All in all, it seems like there's a whole lot more journaling going on and it's all thanks to these little black books. Whodathunk? 

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