The Original Little Black Book: The Moleskine

Sad, lonely , unloved, Oops !!!

My default mode is to protest newfangled contraptions. I postponed my exploration of the world of Harry Potter for ten years, waiting for the fuss to calm down a bit so I could enjoy the world of JK Rowling without the opinions of the chattering mainstream. Put another way, I buck trends as much as possible. Another example? I took to the Seattle sound of 1990’s grunge–the music of my generation–fifteen years after the fact (and as a result, will not indulge hipsters or the music of Macklemore no earlier than 2029).

Moleskine ruled notebook, inside view

I prefer analog approaches over digital, when possible. Of course, there is irony here, given my choice of blogging (a habit I didn’t begin until microblogging made plain old blogging obsolete). While I will admit to using a tablet to read the newspaper nowadays, six years passed before I gave up newsprint. I will still grab a Sunday Times (New York or London) if I can find an abandoned hard copy. But when it comes to scribbling notes, I just cannot embrace the digital post-it, Microsoft’s One Note or Apple’s gizmos. No, there is only one tool, timeless and true, that I use. And thanks to one of those venture capitalist types–the Moleskine has been saved for those of us who still believe that the pen–and not the stylus, pointer finger or app–is still mightier than the sword (and the pad of paper, its scabbard).

Oscar Wilde\'s notebook

Oscar Wilde’s Moleskine
Trusted reliquary of inspiration, the Moleskine appears at first to be a modest notebook. What gives it is character is its quality, and the protection it provides to what is stored within it. The simple device sports rounded edges and flexible paper weight that moves with its master while stored in a pocket. Stiched binding keeps the folio taut, yet perforations allow for hasty snatches to be removed from the inventory. The originals wore black. When presented in a salon or mixed company, the black book announced to the group that these words and statements would be recorded. Journalists kept the raw material stored on its pages to later sculpt into dispatches by twilight back to the AP or press syndicate. Artists no lesser  Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Bruce Chatwin would allow their creativity to splash the tiny canvas, holding onto ideas for later casting and cultivating.

the little black book

Black books, in any form, have always been potent. Some of the earliest uses of the black book–by British peers and headmasters–was as a shit list. Being in the black book meant you were blacklisted, persona non grata. The black book was an important record. Nixon would have appreciated the early example of his own “enemies list.” But, like all phrases, meaning changes with the passage of time. Perhaps the use of the black book by bohemians led to the American idea of the Little Black Book–the whimsical lists of the ladies man, a place where a Casanova records not only the names and phone numbers of his paramours, potentials and friends with benefits (to use the modern parlance), but perhaps lurid details, rankings and measurements. (I believe this function has been replaced by facebook, smartphone and the “sext.”)

As a companion for inspiration instead, the black book survives. According to the current maker of the book, it was Chatwin who called the little device a “Moleskine.” Before that, they were just little black books. These notebooks were a rarity found only in France and in their own way were a talisman of the traveled intellectual. Crafted by a small family in Tours, the slightly expensive notebooks became increasingly rare in the post WWII world of mass production and the “Big-Mart”-ing of the global economy. By 1986, the little black notebook had gone the way of the Dodo, on display only in the museums of those great thinkers and artisans, also extinct.

As Moleskine explains, Chatwin was determined to use these notebooks until the very end:

“In the mid-1980s, these notebooks became increasingly scarce, and then vanished entirely. In his book The Songlines, Chatwin tells the story of the little black notebook: in 1986, the manufacturer, a small family-owned company in the French city of Tours, went out of business. “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus,” are the lapidary words he puts into the mouth of the owner of the stationery shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, where he usually purchased his notebooks. Chatwin set about buying up all the notebooks that he could find before his departure for Australia, but there were still not enough.”

A connoisseur of this analog technology, Modo&Modo revived the little notebook in 1997 in Milan. And, in the 21st century economy, good products with a niche market (such as Hostess Twinkies and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) can be salvaged by venture capital, Syntegra Capital, manufactured under the nom de guerre “Moleskine SpA.” I do not care who makes this thing of beauty today, whether Paris or Milan or Turkey or China. Each book is handmade and can be returned in the unlikely event of a defect.

I have burned through about a dozen of these notebooks since discovering them a few years ago, and continue to fill them at a clip of four to five a year. They are not slick like a Jobsian glass screen, nor do they contain titillating apps (though doodles abound). My inquires, inspirations and ignorance fill these pages. They are as close to a sketch of the author as any brooding diary could capture. The Moleskine captures not so much my sentiment, mood or thoughts but rather, the way I think; the things that intrigue or revile me in the moment, the turns of phrase I can stow away for future use. They are thoroughly broken in by the time I am through with them, but still stand up as a reference, a personal encyclopedia.

Little Black Book

I cannot imagine a device that could ever connect me with my own thoughts as efficiently as acid-free paper, capturing the ink of my roller ball, spell-check free and uninhibited, as the Moleskine. And whether Hipster or Crankshaft, Steampunk or Conservative, do reach for this pad, before the iPad, next time you have a thought worth keeping.

Picasso's sketchbook

Picasso’s Moleskine…looks like “Blue Period” work.

Mangled iPad Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography / Foter / CC BY

Open Moleskine Photo credit: Sembazuru / Foter / CC BY-SA

Moleskine in Red Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Little Black Book Photo credit: vince42 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Open Notes Photo credit: djwtwo / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Acknowledgement: MOLESKINE is a trademark registered worldwide by Moleskine SpA, located in Milan, Viale Stelvio No. 66, 20159 – Italy.
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Gypsy Chickens of the Conch Republic

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Key West shares a distinction with the other hard-to-reach places in the remotest corners of America, such as Alaska, Hawaii, the San Juan Islands of Washington State, Maine, and even Guam. The locales are so far removed from the American nerve centers of commerce and industry that those places take on a deep and rich regionalism of their own. Why do people seek to be “away?” A quote from the 2002 movie, Insomnia, bounced through my head to help me answer:

“Two kinds of people live in Alaska. Those who were born here. And those who are running away from something. I was not born here” says the hotel manager to the visiting FBI man, hot on a case.

Perhaps we do flee from our routines to the corners of America for solace–whether vacationer, retiree or a fugitive. When not traveling for work, I try to get as far away from my workplace as possible. Key West is at least as south as I can get without leaving the US.

True locals to these remotest places know a foreigner when they see one. In truth, everyone in Key West is from someplace else. The first waves of immigrants were loyalists to the crown during the American Revolution, then waves of Spanish seeking refuge from the mainland annexation of Florida by the US, then Cubans, then itinerant writers like Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, and even the eventual poet laureate of Key West, Shel Silverstein. Generations of irascible, life-loving hedonism has given the island a fierce independent streak.

In Key West, the native born are happy to call themselves Conchs (KONKS) after their preferred name–the Conch Republic. If some locals had it their way, they would separate from the Union. In fact, the locals celebrate April 23 as their Independence Day, after a 1982 highway construction dispute with the U.S. Department of Transportation caused the island to be cut off from the mainland by road for a bit. This was followed by a misunderstanding with the U.S. Department of Defense, who planned to conduct a simulated island invasion without telling the locals beforehand. Island lawyers cite the both the highway separation and invasion by the federal government as “de facto” independence, but I digress.

Welcome To The Conch Republic

The Conchs have their own symbols. Their flag honors the pink shell on a field of navy. They issue their own passports. The airport has a “Welcome to the Conch Republic” sign on the tarmac. And their national bird? An easy choice–the feral cocks of the Florida Keys, and I am not referring to the drunken men, scrappy vagabonds, Parrotheads and Hemingway look-a-likes that populate the island.

You cannot go anywhere without seeing roosters and hens in Key West. Feral roosters revert to their un-domesticated, natural state quickly, roosting in the banyan trees, crowing at dawn (a perfect alarm clock on vacation if there is such a thing), and fighting for their territory around downtown.

The Gypsy Chickens, as they are known, are as much a Key West icon as the Hemingway House, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, and the Southernmost Point in the Continental US. Like most origin stories, the tale of the exact arrival of the gypsies is foggy. Most stories point to the emigrant Cubans to Cayo Hueso (the Spanish name for Key West). In the 1840’s, refugees from the hostilities in Havana brought to Key West their cuisine, cigars and cock fighting. Cock fighting was a legitimate past time of the Key until the 1970’s, when the practice was banned. As a result, many disgruntled gamblers released them into the wild.

Technically, the chicken is an invasive species in the Key, and locals are split on whether they are nostalgic or a nuisance. The debate has achieved conflagration into a flame-broasted full scale argument that the Conchs call the “Chicken War.” For those whom the bird is more popular than Jimmy Buffett (perhaps why he never penned “Chicken Sammich in Paradise.”), the cocks are living history, and augment the eccentricities of the island. Those opposed cite the constant damage to property, bird poo on their cars and havoc to the ecosystem. The nays had an advantage in the 2009 flu pandemic, saying that the islanders might be at risk from a bird flu. Opponents also prefer the chickens as an entree over entertainment.

The island tries to control for population, sending off captured and noisome cocks to the mainland for “retirement.” When the locals became worried that “retirement” meant boarding in a bucket KFC value meal, the Key West Wildlife Center was established. The Center sends off the surplus birds to mainland refugee ranges. The keepers on the mainland will allow tourists who desire to take home a bit of the islands to adopt a chicken for a modest fee. (Interested? You can email SallyDIABLO@aol.com for your very own gypsy chicken.)

Most tourists in Key West seek out the Jimmy Buffett experience–sun-bleached clothes, open container laws, island shabbiness, and the free spirit that the island has always offered the libertine vagabond. Older tourists in elastic waistbands eschew the margarita for Key Lime Pie. I find the definition of Key West not in the Hemingway Cats or Conch fritters but in those feral chickens. They sum up the history of the island–Cuban refugees, low-brow entertainment, invasive species, independent spirit, and national emblem of the Conch Republic.

For more reading, check out these blogs, who do greater justice to their beloved gypsies than I do (and provided some sources for this post).

Explore Key West History

The Real Key West

Gypsy Chickens

Photo Credit: The author, January, 2011.

Mom and Chicks Photo credit: SimonM. / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Conch Republic Photo credit: ksr8s / Foter.com / CC BY-SA