The Death and Life of Sketchbooks, or Why I Kind of Wish I Never Got a Smartphone


Glimpse of road trips past – Summer 2002, British Columbia.

Last Wednesday night I got to drive the “baseball bus” which provided me a few preicous minutes to listen to Marketplace without and distraction. It’s so different listening to the news when I am alone and focused than when I am in the kitchen trying to make breakfast/lunch/dinner while simultaneously reading picturebooks/drawing/playing cars/pretending to be Buzz Lightyear/checking homework/asking about Dan’s day at work. In the car, alone, I get to really hear and think about what I am listening to, even if it’s only one story. I was satisfied with my Wednesday night story, “Moleskin notebooks see growth in the digital age.” It got me reminiscing of the days when I didn’t leave the house without a sketchbook and wondering if I will ever live that way again.

This story centered on Moleskin’s initial public offering on the Italian stock exchange. The big question: What’s the future of a company that makes paper notebooks in the age of iPhones and who knows what will come next? The short answer in two parts: 1) Expand to make products for the digital age like iPad covers; 2) Serve as a status symbol for people who want to be seen as so full of good ideas that they have to carry a notebook at all times to write them down, on paper with a pen, because they still value the look and feel of handwritten (verbal and visual) notes on paper in an world full of screens. I used to be this kind of person. I suppose I still am, though I haven’t been acting the part lately.

While I haven’t kept a sketchbook in about 6 years, I was reminded of and reflecting on that practice just a few weeks ago when Dan and I were cleaning out the basement. We are both creative people who like to hold onto memories of our past creative work. For him it is master tapes, fan mail, and musical equipment. For me, it is boxes and boxes of paper – old school work (my own and my students’), materials for collage, and a box containing nothing by the sketchbooks I kept from about 1997 to 2006. Over the years we have shifted our stuff around in our subterranean storage unit, trying to convince ourselves we aren’t hoarders, chipping away at ours collections a little bit each time.  A few years ago, for example, I got rid of academic journals and articles that are now easier for me to access online. Even with these migrations, my sketchbook box hadn’t been opened in about 5 years. There was no question I was keeping its contents so I didn’t both sorting through it. And so it was a few weeks ago when I put that box on the back side of my newly designated storage space. But I felt sad as I did so, an admission that that part of my life was over. Last night I dug it out, pulled it down, and journeyed back in time.


In college I was required to keep sketchbooks for some of my courses, but I didn’t embrace this arena for research and reflection until I graduated and was on my own. In retrospect those sketchbooks were my own little self-organized learning units (See Sugata Mitra‘s SOLE). I lived inside of those little books. I filled them with discoveries, images of places I went (as far as Alaska and as close as the bathroom) and ideas I came across in readings, radio shows, and daily conversation. I stopped sometime in graduate school, when my life and intellectual focus shifted inside my laptop. The summer after I admitted I had stopped sketchbooking, I tried to force myself back into the habit. I launched a “drawing a day” project but felt uninspired and distracted, and then frustrated again that I couldn’t get back into the groove. Last month I upgraded my phone and part of me feels like that was the final nail in the coffin.

Both digital and analog notebooks can contain and store our ideas. Both help make tangible our intangible thoughts. But I miss handwriting and drawing through my days. There is something quite different about both the process and product. And that’s why, even though I am not a Moleskin devotee, I can see why that company has a future.  It’s a future I hope to be part of.


4 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Sketchbooks, or Why I Kind of Wish I Never Got a Smartphone

  1. Funnily enough, sketchbooks have been on my mind lately. I am not a great sketchbook-er. Never have been, unless forced. I’m not entirely sure why, though I think I have trouble with the imperfection that occurs in them. I know that’s the whole point… exploration and experimentation, as well as drawing practice, but it’s just hard for me to do. I am envious of my friend and peer Juliet, who volumes of her own sketchbooks and journals from young adulthood to present time. I’d love to be able to go back and read though my thoughts and see drawings from my early days in art exploration. I need to force myself to do a drawing a day as you suggested.
    On another note, I believe that children could really benefit from sketchbooks and journals. Again, it’s about exploring ideas… and non-perfection. Giving them chances to come up with non-verbal ideas and take risks, which is more important than ever in schools today.

  2. I’m still, though I type this on my smart phone, an avid notebook user. I can’t write fiction without a notebook, or at least a piece of paper. My notebooks are not always orderly and I’ve always got too many of them in action at once. Interestingly, though I’ve been gifted moleskins and other fancy notebooks before, I never really write in them- I think they’re too precious to be carefree with. I prefer a good old marble notebook or anything with a spiral binding. Is it the same for you artists? Do fancy sketchbooks freeze you up?

  3. I have this love/hate affair with technology, but I find myself craving the feel and smell of paper. Even with digital books, I prefer print. I wonder if this makes me old (I’m only mid 30’s) and stubborn. I too used to be devoted to my sketchbook. I still use it, sadly just not as much. Nothing excites me or terrifies me more than a blank book. I still teach and use a sketchbook with my students.

  4. Pingback: I Heart Lists | Outside The lines

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