What is the seductive appeal of a blank notebook? Whenever I see them offered for sale, whether in a traditional legatoria in Florence or on the shelves of that discount store ending in Maxx, I have to stop myself, remind myself that I already have at least ten unused ones at home. (Actually, on the one occasion in my life so far that I found myself in a bindery in Florence, with marbled papers and leather spines and age-old craftsmanship all around, I did not in fact stop myself. I bought, after ages of agonizing decision between ravishing marbling here, or tooled leather there, a notebook which is, of course, too beautiful to use. So it is more truthful to say that when I see them on sale, I am tempted, always. And manage to resist, usually.)
It's to do with several things. First, the shape of the book itself, the codex form. The way lifting the covers is like lifting the lid of a treasure box. The way the pages are nested, with the gatherings stitched safely into the spine, yet the leaves are free to move. They can be turned, forwards, backwards; when reading a book, you can see from the stack of pages ahead, how much longer you have to remain in that world. You can turn back to an earlier part of the story, re-enter the past, or anticipate the future, as we cannot do in life. The book holds past, present, and future in a capsule.
And there is more, there is so much more one could say; I have said some of it in an essay exploring the evolution of the codex from the book-roll, and the importance of nursery rhymes, and the delights of early reading, and why we love books, their physicality, their heft. An essay rather longer than is usual in these sound-bite days (it's available for publication….anyone out there interested? Anyone? Ah well….) because there is so much richness in the subject of the codex book.
The essay is a love letter to the codex book, and so is my novel Inscription. So it's ironic that I am currently in an agony of impatience because it is taking longer than expected at the printer's for the words to undergo the transformation into a physical volume, on paper, with pages, that you can hold and read, and pass (in my dreams!) from hand to hand.
Part of Inscription's story takes place at the end of the first century AD, around the time when, in Rome, a new object appeared in the shops: a gathering of parchment pages, literature on leaves of skin instead of in the traditional scroll. As Martial said, this made a good Saturnalia present; easy to travel with, long works compressed into a small space. Before that, there had been (it seems, though the mists of history obscure all this) parchment notebooks used by artisans; but a scroll was the proper place for any decent bit of writing. The codex did not catch on immediately, but over the next few centuries it grew more and more popular. (All this refers to the story of the book in Western Europe, of course; elsewhere, it is different). Now the codex has been our preferred book form for almost two thousand years. But for how much longer?
To return to the blank book, it's also seductive because it invites the act of writing. Writing by hand. There is such a physical pleasure in taking a pen, forming the letters, the little curlicues and upstrokes and dots and loops that mean something; in making something, in progressing through the pages. But the unwritten book, the book of the imagination, the book I think I will write when I contemplate the porous blank field of the page, that unladen ship that is a blank book, is always far superior to any scrawlings I actually produce. In fact, quite often I hesitate to mar the pages at all. I open the book, riffle them a bit, and then (as I say in a poem about that moment, which, since this is an informal blog post, I can shamelessly, or almost shamelessly, haul into the discussion) I let the covers scallop shut. Which is why I have so many unused notebooks.
Check out here my earlier blog about France, language, living….