Book review: ‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen

‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen

As someone with something of a notebook habit, I expected to enjoy this book very much indeed. I was not to be disappointed.

Roland Allen has produced an entertaining history of notebooks, each chapter dedicated to different aspects of their development and use. He takes us from the earliest surviving example of a notebook—a Bronze Age wax-tablet affair recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey—through to more modern interpretations in the form of bullet journals and intensive care unit patient diaries.

We encounter many different types of notebooks, including papyrus codices, accountants’ ledgers, waste books, Florentine zibaldoni, common-place books, diaries and journals, recipe books, music books, police officers’ notebooks, artists’ sketchbooks, scientists’ notebooks, erasable ‘table books’, friendship books, and ships’ logs. We are also told some fascinating stories about numerous confirmed or likely notebook users, including French nobleman Nicolas Fouquet (whose notebooks were responsible for his ultimate downfall), Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys, Carl Linnaeus, Herman Melville, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Béla Bartók, Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Francis Ford Coppola, and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Me admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C
Peak geekery: a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’ and ‘notebook nerd’ admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C.

In addition to these high-profile notebook users, Allen has also unearthed some less celebrated figures who either made good use of notebooks, or whose notebooks subsequently proved most useful to scientists and academics. For example, I was particularly interested by an initiative to trawl old ships’ logs to extract historical weather records. And as a fan of Sir Thomas Browne, I was also interested to learn about his daughter’s common-place book.

The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper is a fabulous read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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