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The moleskine notebook of the web

I just spent the guts of 14 euro on a notebook. Notebooks are basically all just the same. Why would I spend that much on one? It’s like software – why would you pay for something when you can get something that does almost the same thing for a lower price?

The notebook is just a 4-inch by 6-inch hardback book with paper in it.. It is made of acid-free paper, granted. But that doesn’t make that much impact the price. You can buy an awful lot of quality acid-free paper for 14 euro, even retail. The cover isn’t made of very expensive material either (though it has a durable finish). It’s just oilcloth. You can buy about three square yards of black oilcloth for 14 euro. There’s a nice bookmark in it, which must have cost all of 20 cents and there’s an elastic to hold it shut, which might have cost, maybe 50 cents to make and attach to the binding. It’s sewn together rather than glued, but so what? It’s not as if they have to sew it by hand. They use a big drilling and sewing machine to do it.

The reason people like me pay the premium is because of the small but special things. It’s nicely assembled and packaged. There’s a little flap in the back for safely storing clippings and small items. The elastic is just the right length and is very useful. The size is just right. It lies fairly flat, and the spine won’t break or get crushed.

Also, there is a story (partly true, mostly manufactured) behind it. These are supposed to be the notebooks that the writers Hemingway and C?line used, as well as the great 20th century explorer and archeologist Indiana Jones. According to a report published on BBC’s H2G2, the documented facts around these stories are pretty hazy. In fact, all we know is that some notebooks of this type were made for a somewhat obscure author by a stationer in Tours who is now dead, in a different country many years ago. No doubt the new notebooks resemble the old ones, but that’s about the size of it.

However dubious the story, it lives on, and many people are happy to continue it. The story may be greater than the reality, and that’s OK. My friend Joi Ito writes about his notebook in his weblog. Armand Frasco has started a weblog dedicated to his favorite notebook. Search for “moleskine notebook” in Google and you’ll find plenty more.

Still, all these things together, the pragmatic choice of economic but long-lasting materials, the reasonably good quality of manufacturing, the enthusiasm for the product worldwide and the feeling that something I wrote might have a tenuous connection to Hemingway make me prepared to spring the extra money for the notebook.

It’s an aside, but there is a parallel between the moleskine/Modo e Modo notebook and the modern software business. Look at weblog software. There is loads of it out there. Search for anything ablout blogs on Google and you will see loads of ads for blogging software. Any of these services and downloads is probably perfectly functional. You set up some templates, then type text in a box to have it appear on a website. Many of these services are free or very inexpensive.

So why would anyone pay for a more expensive service like Movable Type’s Typepad? Well, I think it will be for the same reasons that they might be prepared to pay more to buy one of Modo e Modo’s notebooks. It’s nicely put together, “a thing of beauty” as they said on CNN. There are a lot of people out there talking about it. It’s a little pricey, but it’s still something most people can afford if they really want it.

The one thing Typepad is missing now is a literary or film connection. Imagine if Typepad were the weblog of choice in a Tarentino movie – somehow that would make Typepad the only credible choice for credible bloggers. Or if Chomsky started using it to publish his views on neoliberalism.

Whatever about Typepad, I have reservations about the moleskine notebooks. Personally, fancy brands make me nervous. Ask anyone who knows me. My favorite supermarket is Lidl (especially good for cleaning products and the odd hardware special, and the chocolate is excellent too) and my fave airline is Ryanair. (I’d fly on ’em more, but they are quite expensive to go Dublin-London on, when you take all the costs into account).

I like the product, I like the story and I like the idea, but at the core, 14 euros for a notebook with an oilcloth cover is a bit of a rip-off. For me the value of brands is quality, consistency and a connection with the manufacture and design of the product, not the snob value. I’d buy a cheaper notebook in a minute if it had the same handy features. Not that I begrudge Modo e Modo their money; if they can find people who are prepared to pay, good for them.

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  1. just tell me where i can get one- in Dublin. i have a freind here who wants one badly.