An Ode to the Traveller’s Notebook

One of the saddest sights on any long journey is watching someone run out of power.

I’m not referring to the everyday weariness from walking up too many flights of steps or carrying over packed luggage for rather too far for comfort. Those moments are always manageable – you can sit, mop your brow, and take a few minutes to enjoy your surroundings.

With a bit of luck, serendipity will strike, and you’ll learn something new about the world. A lot of great travel experiences start out this way.

The spectacular Namib Desert in Africa

No – I’m referring to your gadgets.

It’s alarming how much of our peace of mind now relies on a full battery. Whether it’s a tablet, a phone or a laptop, we’ve all grown accustomed to anchoring our identity in our gadgets to an unprecedented level – and gently falling to pieces when they run out of power.

Ever felt the disappointment of having your phone die on you as something breathtakingly shareable approaches in the distance? Then you understand completely.

Seasoned travelers, journalists, and travel writers are no different in their love of modern communication technology. However, they are far less tolerant of its shortcomings – and a perfect example of this is their relationship with paper.

In 1999, Dick Brass, Microsoft’s then Vice President of Technology Development, announced to the world that “paper is dead“. He believed we’d all be reading e-books within a decade – and if Amazon’s Kindle sales are anything to go by, he was onto something.

Books for the road

The Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism concluded that by the end of 2010, more people were getting their news online than from newspapers (irrespective of the age of the readers).

And that was eight years ago. If the paper isn’t dead, it certainly appears to have a nasty cough.

But that’s publishing. What about the act of writing – including writing up our travels as we go, and capturing those moments when we need to? Welcome back, trusty battered Moleskine. Your day has come again, my friend.

Firstly, and most obviously, a paper notebook will work without a battery. It’ll work during a power-cut.

It’ll work when you’ve been traveling for 24 solid hours, with your hand-luggage irretrievably jammed under your seat and your phone long-dead, with something magical that’s just happening right now, outside your bus window.

In these moments, a tiny notebook and pen tucked into a jacket pocket is absolutely peerless – and ready to go at the speed of a Formula 1 pit-stop.

Then there are the security issues. Ever hear about that traveler that had their notebook and pen stolen while on holiday? Of course not.

To be honest, people might want to steal this notebook

A paper notebook is worthless to other people, even when it’s filled with irreplaceable words. Nobody will ever take it, and nobody will ever try.

Next, we enter the murky world of UX, or “user experience”.

As marvelous as a $300 iPad feels, when you’re scrolling and swiping around its memory banks, you’re going to have to work a little harder to replicate the writing experience of using a $10 notebook.

Your finger doesn’t end in a nice, neat point like a pen does, so you lack precision, and it takes precious seconds to open the right app up.

And there’s still nothing technological that beats scrawling – that deliciously creative act of scribbling under words to emphasize them, drawing rings around them, drawing arrows across the page to make connections, doodling in the margins and at the foot of the page, and scribbling things out in self-recriminating fury.

Paper captures emotion – and one day, you may feel something special about these indicators of feelings you’d forgotten until you opened up this particular notebook just now.

(Paper also seems to capture a different way of thinking, and there’s growing evidence that writing longhand is good for the development of your brain.)

But there’s one benefit about using notebooks that beats all the rest, even the power issue – and it concerns what you did first thing this morning.

Morning in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Thanks to our modern gadgets, most of us have a profoundly altered morning routine.



Check email.

Check messages elsewhere.

Follow a link and end up reading the day’s news.

Check Twitter.

Check Facebook.

Check if anyone’s responded to that comment you left someone that was, if you don’t mind saying so, rather insightful.

Find nobody’s responded and feel absurdly let down.

All this, before you even get out of bed.

Even if you’re not a total internet addict (like so many of us are), your gadgets are working as hard as they can to get you hooked. A phone is no longer a phone: it’s a gateway to an endless carnival of distractions, many of them extremely engrossing (and many of them completely pointless).

Every time you pick up a phone, tablet or personal computer, you open yourself up to a profound intellectual derailment. Within seconds, the thing you actually intended to do is a distant memory.

Osh Bazaar in Kazakhstan

When you’re traveling, this is a recipe for missed opportunities.

I must take a photo of that, OK, open tablet…woah, my cousin just send me a video of my nephew doing something adorable! That’s so cute. Wait – what was I supposed to be doing? Oh. Never mind.

In contrast, the most timelessly powerful thing about a paper notebook is what it can’t do. It can’t check email. It can’t take photos. It can’t send you status updates from FarmVille.

It can do exactly nothing except hold your writing. That’s all it will ever do for you (okay, maybe that and squashing mosquitos).

If you’re a journalist or travel writer on a deadline, where a distraction could mean a loss of reputation or even unemployment, single-tasking is your greatest ally – and if you’re a world traveller wanting to get the best out of every experience that comes your way, a notebook will keep you resolutely on the path towards that admirable goal.

So wherever you go on your travels, be sure to tuck a small, tough notebook into a spare pocket (maybe the waterproof kind, just to be on the safe side), along with a good, reliable pen.

It’ll make you a better observer, a better storyteller – and maybe, just maybe, a happier human being.

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