I like reading a sneer article as much as the next person but it stings when the article sneers at something you actually enjoy. So I read this article by Caroline O’Donovan at the Baffler about Field Notes, the brand of tiny pocket notebooks that are styled like props from some as-yet-unmade Wes Anderson film, with increasing levels of wincing.
Here is the crux of O’Donovan’s argument:
Obviously, people may record their thoughts on whatever brand of bound paper they want, and pay whatever sum and wait whatever length of time for that bound paper to arrive that they wish. That some paper goods inspired by labor ephemera have come to stand in, not just for a personal aesthetic, but for a bygone way of life, seems inevitable.
But the transmogrification-by-design of cultural history into brand into profit that’s being perpetrated by Field Notes and celebrated by AdWeek as a victory for capitalism is perturbing. And the seeming interchangeability of “design,” “brand,” and “lifestyle” — as though there was no difference between the object a company is selling, the illusion surrounding that object, and the human being they’re selling it to — is simply baffling.
And she does have a point. The notebooks are absurdly, pretentiously detailed with a certain amount of baked-in nostalgia for a time most users would only know about via nostalgia. The notebooks are a stylistic spoof off of the “vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books.” But what O’Donovan doesn’t allow in her analysis is any kind of humor on the part of Aaron Draplin and Jim Coudal, the two people who came up with and make Field Notes. O’Donovan assiduously interprets the Field Notes marketing copy and the related AdWeek article without ever admitting that this is marketing copy, i.e., a shtick, and a shtick that I would argue is firmly articulated with tongue in cheek. It’s shtick-in-cheek!
Though both have roots in advertising, Draplin and Coudal are neither rubes nor slick manipulators. I’ve seen Draplin talk in person and I’ve watched Coudal talk in an online lecture, and as people, as entrepreneurs, they seem extremely interesting. Yes, there’s a lot of intentional Americana in the Field Notes marketing, but if you see Draplin give a presentation you see that he is genuinely enthused by American vernacular graphic design. And so while his project in part is an expression of nostalgia, it’s also a gesture of preservation, of highlighting and promoting what were good cultural expressions and products in the past, and redeploying them today. He’s just trying to keep the goodness going.
Also, given the fact that both Draplin and Coudal have worked for ad agencies in the past (or in Coudal’s case, run an ad agency), it’s not like these people wouldn’t bring a grain of self-awareness to the product, or that their customers wouldn’t bring it as well. O’Donovan writes as if both parties — notebook producer and buyer — are corrupt consumerist fools who thirst for a false past they’ve never actually experienced. Well, maybe a little. But also at the same time I’d argue that they thirst for a ridiculously well-made notebook, a notebook with a Stanley Kubrickian level of excellence.
I, of course, don’t know Draplin or Coudal’s intentions. I do think that Coudal Partners, Jim Coudal’s eponymous company, is quite interesting in how it functions essentially as an ad agency without any clients. (Coudal makes this quip in that presentation I watched.) That is, they went from creating marketing materials on behalf of some other client’s products to making products themselves. They began creating products that they themselves needed, which came from their own necessity and conformed to their own aesthetic. And this is what makes them so interesting, qua products. Though I am buying a product (a notebook), the effect is not only of buying a product that is being sold to me, but buying a product that was made for some other unknown person who has extremely good taste, and getting the benefit of both.
Besides, they are good notebooks. They fit just right in almost any back pocket (whereas the Moleskine notebooks of similar size are a hair too long). They are well built, standing up to whatever level of ass sweat I submerge them in. They are easy to use, easier to use right now than even the phone, which has to be retrieved, unlocked, notifications dismissed, app located, opened, loaded, etc. Plus you can get barbecue sauce on it without triggering a budgetary and/or hygienic crisis. They strike just the right balance between being completely ephemeral and being potentially archivable, which is just what one wants in a small, pocket-sized notebook. It’s not too precious. It’s just precious enough.
Perhaps all of this is just me rationalizing my own use of these notebooks. For the most part, I use the standard small notebook offerings. I haven’t fallen off into the more esoteric editions, such as the subscription colors series or the one with a cherry wood cover or the new gilt-edged one. I readily admit that these are ridiculous, but I would say that they are knowingly, intentionally ridiculous. What you have, I think, with Draplin/Coudal is a duo that’s on the avant-garde of notebook production, just the way that McSweeney’s for a time was on the avant-garde of literary magazine production. The line of notebooks exemplify the Platonic ideal of a notebook while at the same time pushing the outer limits of what a notebook can look and act like. If we were talking about chairs, we could say that some editions are Stickley-level notebooks, while others are Saarinen-level notebooks. And this intentionally ridiculous exploration of notebook possibility is good for human culture, frankly. It’s true we’re all now leashed to a screened device that tracks our GPS location at all moments, and that on these devices one could, as O’Donovan describes, make lists or notes of almost infinite length. But if paper books are going to remain in use, if magazines, if newspapers, if notebooks are going to remain in use in any appreciable numbers in light of the (also rampantly consumerist but not tainted with some nostalgist impulse only the impulse toward a technocratic progressive utopianism) encroaching computerification of everything, then these media will need to explore what they can do that the new technology can’t. And so paper books will need to discover what only paper books can do. Books, magazine, and notebooks will by necessity become more iconoclastically themselves to earn their place on the coffee table or the back pocket. And that’s what Coudal is up to.
Of course what this article highlights, I mean aside from the fact that O’Donovan obviously hates me, is just how ridiculous it is to make a really excellent version of anything. It is inherently stupid to make a really great notebook, guitar, car, ham sandwich, novel, computer application. The act is by definition pretentious and ripe for ridicule because it betrays an aesthetic on the part of the person making it. And yet while we all can’t have the perfect guitar, notebook, ham sandwich all the time every time, it still feels good to know that there are people out there trying to make them.