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Offline: The notebook

Offline: The notebook


Paul Miller continues his offline travels and runs into troubles in the world of note-taking.

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The irony is not lost on me: mere weeks after I published my Verge At Work internet-based text document synchronization workflow masterpiece, I left the internet. In addition to the chuckles this has produced, it's also caused me great sadness. I miss the confidence and convenience of having my notes available on every device and saved to the cloud.

Since I ditched my iPhone in addition to my process, a huge simultaneous pain point has been on-the-go note taking — because all the best ideas seem to happen on-the-go. My replacement has been this notebook.

It's a Moleskine, naturally

It's a Moleskine, naturally, since I'm a lemming-hipster that believes my choice of notebook will direct me toward the path of Hemingway and Picasso, not just to the Bedford Ave. L stop in Williamsburg. I haven't named the notebook out loud, but if it's possible to mentally "name" something the abstract concept of a color, that's what I call it: it is orange.

I started out slow, copying out passages of books I like, and writing down incomplete lists of movies I see and what I think about them. My hand would cramp up quickly, I couldn't read back my own quasi-cursive attempts, and I'd often fail to have the notebook on hand for the most exciting ideas and need-to-remember facts.

But then I started to travel this past month, and orange has become indispensable. No observation is too small to be stored in it, no book recommendation lasts 30 seconds before it's jotted down, and my notation style has started to become not only useful, but beautiful to me — something I've never been able to say about any iteration of my handwriting over the years.

To ease my mind, I take pictures of the pages with my iPad and then backup those pictures to my MacBook, just to make sure a loss of the notebook won't be catastrophic — I recently lost a well-marked copy of The Odyssey, and I haven't recovered from that horror. I'll probably never even use half of my notes, but what's important is that they're there; my life has not passed unobserved or unremembered.

And who could have foreseen what happened next? I ran out of orange. I've filled every page with my fevered scribbles. This has never happened to me. I've never filled a notebook in any school subject, never worked a diary past a couple days, and all my grand schemes of filling sketchpads with concepts of moon colonies and sky cities remain blank.

In computers, the concept of limited storage has always been present. As rapidly as hard drives grow in capacity, our capacity to fill them grows. The advent of the SSD has tightened the bit strings, and now we have our music and movies and family photos resting in 500GB Western Digitals and 50GB Dropboxes. But when was the last time you ran out of room for text files? It's a mind trip. I expected orange to last a full year, at the very least. As the weight of the notebook started to shift left, I remained in denial. It was only when a mere handful of pages were left that I started to realize the repercussions. I started to write smaller, cram my notes into every margin, double back to fill out the lax, early pages. But the end came.

My life has not passed unobserved or unremembered

I bought a new notebook. It wasn't easy to find — I visited a Sears in a Mexico City mall, which had many pens and lighters and other novelties, but no blank collections of paper. In my beyond broken Spanish I asked for directions to a store that would have notebooks (Samborna, I was told, a sort of fancy Sears minus appliances and plus a built-in restaurant), and I made my way there on foot — passing along a MetroBus route that I determined to take on my way back. Here is a transcription of some of orange's last precious inches:

I've never been so happy to see a Sears
Effing Sears has pens, no paper
Don't think the VAW irony is lost on me

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.