Roland Allen loves notebooks. Why wouldn’t he? He is, after all, a writer. In his new study, delightfully subtitled A History of Thinking on Paper, he declares: “If your business is words, a notebook can be at once your medium – and your mirror.” Paul Valéry was at least as devoted to his notebooks as the symbolist poetry for which he is best known. He awoke early each morning for half a century to write in them, amassing 261 books in total. “Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”
Notebooks in different guises have been around since at least the late 13th century. In Florence they were used as ledgers, spurred the development of double-entry book-keeping, and, not least because they were made of paper rather than more expensive and less stable parchment, were integral to the rise of mercantilism. In the form of sketch books they allowed artists to depict their surroundings repeatedly and develop more realistic techniques.
There also emerged rapiaria – grab-bags of pious phrases taken from scriptures. And zibaldoni – collections of recipes, ballads, prayers and personal information that could be shown to friends and even continued by relatives. This latter practice could backfire; Allen cites a zibaldone in which someone, possibly the writer’s brother, has added: “Note that you are lying through your teeth like the scoundrel you are, and you are a crazy windbag.”
There were memoriali, giornali, quaderni, squartofogli. Autograph books, spiritual self-audits, lists of friends, climate logs. Also, a 410-page “fish book” by Adriaen Coenen, whose mapping of fishing grounds and marine animals, to say nothing of its meticulous drawings of shrimp, turtles and herrings, was so revelatory that visitors to a Leiden fair paid more to read its pages than to inspect the actual fish.
An especially haunting chapter concerns LHD 244, a musical treatise used by generations of singers and players from the 15th to the early 17th century, that became “tatty, scarred … passed from hand to hand, accreting knowledge and nuance as it went. The constant companion of a succession of childless Franciscans, living and dying together in the community of their order, perhaps it came to embody the bonds that grew between teachers and students as they worked together to make music to the glory of God.”
Possibly the most celebrated notebooker of all was Leonardo da Vinci. Every day he scribbled, doodled, diagrammed. He filled thousands of pages with sketches of waves, bubbles, vortices; designs for pumps, valves, furnaces, grinders; closely observed chins, vertebrae, feet bones. He made lists – 67 different words to describe the ways in which water moves. He explored geometry, anatomy, mechanics, colour itself. Speculative as much as forensic, he imagined prefabricated mobile homes and flying machines. The books themselves are almost airborne with possibilities, dreaming, gleeful experimentation.
This quality – of movement, of freedom – makes notebooks enduringly appealing. They often contain direct observations, primary information, pre-theorised experiences. Is this authenticity? Brian Eno came up with the conceit that NOTEBOOKS could be an acronym for Nothing On This Earth Betrays Our Own Karakter So. Allen quotes an 18th-century Dutch woman named Magdalena van Schinne who began her journal: “Here, I will be able to pour out my soul entirely.” This doesn’t mean all notebooks are reliable; one chapter discusses how police pocketbooks have often been tampered with, fabricated, or, in the case of the Hillsborough disaster, withheld from official inquiries.
Many school curriculums downplay cursive these days. Shame. Allen points to evidence that maintaining a notebook with pen and paper is best for processing and retaining information. It can stave off depression and act as ballast to those struggling with ADHD. It is tactile, a form of “embodied cognition”, another example of the superiority of slowness. A beautiful chapter entitled In Search of Slow Time honours Danish nurses at ICU units who started patient diaries to detail the physical changes and progress made by men and women whose sense of self had been decimated by sickness. Paying attention, caring, handwriting: this is love.
• The Notebook by Roland Allen is published by Profile (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.