The Paper Chase
Confessions of a stationery addict.
On a shelf not too far from the desk where I’m typing sit 267 unused notebooks. Tallying them up was a little disturbing. It’s one thing to suspect you possess more than enough paper to capture every thought you’ll ever have; it’s another to know it for sure. But despite this abundance, I still want more—in the last week alone, four more journals have joined their dusty comrades, and I just ordered another off the Web.
My name is June, and I am a stationery addict. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or dispirited, nothing perks me up more than a few minutes perusing the Notebook Stories blog or staring at photos of other people’s stationery collections online. Or, better yet, wandering the aisles of a quality paper emporium. Sometimes the thrill comes from recognizing the hunting-and-gathering skills of the store’s owner: Whenever I go to Papeterie Nota Bene in Montreal (and I go to Montreal mostly to go to Papeterie Nota Bene), the proprietor always seems to have tracked down new items that I’ve never seen before but immediately need to own. Or perhaps I’m drawn to the miracle of small differences. It’s inspiring to see shelves and shelves of almost identical items, knowing that tiny details—rounded versus squared corners, slight variations in grid scale and ink color—can elevate the so-so to the spectacular.
I am also a keen stationery tourist. Notebooks make perfect souvenirs, since a notebook bought on a trip will remind you of your vacation every time you write in it. All I can remember of a long weekend in Lisbon is a broiling August sun, the difficulty of finding a restaurant open on Sunday evening, and an insanely eclectic stationers that was the first place I found my all-time favorite pen, the Rotring Xonox Graphic. (That model seems to have been retired—the replacement Tikky Graphic is fine but not quite the same.) Kyoto, Japan, is a blur of temples and carefully tended sand gardens, but I can visualize the exact layout of the peculiar store where I bought some beautiful Year of the Ox cards. And many a trip to my home town of Manchester has been redeemed by a few hours in the huge branch of Paperchase.
I am not alone in my obsession. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who understand that, in a stationery store, every book has to be examined, every paper block caressed, and every potentially suitable pen tested; and those for whom buying a notebook is like shopping for eggs: They find the size they want, make sure it’s in one piece, and take it to the till. Never go shopping with those people; they’ll be ready to leave before you’ve figured out where the Leuchtturm1917s are stashed.
But even we paper fiends come in different stripes. Perhaps because my own fixations are essentially anti-social (I am drawn to small notebooks that no one else will ever get to look inside), I’m fascinated by folks who love social stationery—cards, notepaper with matching envelopes, and kits full of stickers and sheets of pastel paper. How can they stand to share their finds with other people? I guess they’re just less selfish than me. Or perhaps more practical: Since I can’t bear to tear pages out of my notebooks, I end up scrawling notes to friends on oversize legal pads or on the backs of to-do lists. In a house full of notebooks, I can never find a decent sheet of writing paper when I need it.
Why do I love stationery? My absolute delight in browsing paper palaces gives me a glimmer of the addict’s compulsion, an overwhelming desire for something I really don’t need. Fortunately, stationery is a harmless obsession—most of the items I jones for cost less than $25—and while acquiring 300 notebooks isn’t a wise investment, it hasn’t put me in financial peril, either.
And like any collector, I find pleasure in knowledgeable connoisseurship. I’m not as obsessed with pens as I am with paper, for example, but I know what I like, and that is JetStream Uni-ball ballpoint pens with a 1 mm refill, Muji Gel-Ink pens with a 0.7mm refill, Pilot Precise V7 retractable rollerballs, Zebra G-301 Gel Retractable pens with a 0.7 mm refill, or disposable Varsity fountain pens from Pilot.
I also know that pens are only special when paired with the right paper. And I am a regular Dolly Levi of paper-pen matchmaking. The unbreakable rule is: ballpoint pens for composition books, reporters’ notebooks, and college-ruled spiral-bound books with university logos on the front; gel inks or fountain pens for Moleskines or supersmooth Japanese or Korean paper. Some notebooks even insist on a No. 2 pencil. I never know for sure until I open up a journal for the first time.
Sometimes, notebooks can be intimidating. How could my scribblings be worthy of the gorgeous hand-made journal I found in a Parisian stationers so packed with irresistible goodies that I finally understood the pain of Sophie’s Choice? One of the reasons my stationery shelf is so crowded with pristine items is that I do most of my writing in inexpensive, mass-produced notebooks. I make work notes in college-ruled composition books—preferably the commonplace Mead variety. Since there are stacks of them in every drug store and school-supply warehouse in America, they’re the opposite of daunting. And best of all, they change as you fill them—they’re a couple of centimeters fatter when completed, and the sound made by flipping through the crinkled pages is one of the most satisfying I know.
But the real thrill of the paper chase lies in the sense of possibility. After all, I don’t spend a lot of time putting pen to paper. I do most of my writing, professional and personal, on a computer. But those notebooks are my life raft—I just know they’ll rescue me if I get lost for words. Notebooks have sprung me from creative funks enough times to convince me of their mystical powers. I feel about notebooks the way I imagine believers feel about their religion: Someone who lacks faith in stationery will never understand how much comfort the perfect combination of pen and paper can provide. Faced with a task I don’t know how to tackle or a story that just won’t be written, I approach the notebook shelf knowing that something there will get me out of my jam.
This is why, to me, notebooks are irresistibly beautiful objects: Their shape evokes the intellectual satisfaction of the great books, combined with the endless possibilities of the unknown: The next thing I write in one might be the best thing I’ve ever written.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.