Putting Pen to Paper Anew
List-Makers, Note-Takers, Engineers and Playwrights Discover Contentment and Community Using Moleskines

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

Sitting in a coffee shop, Eric Henning, an occasional but aspiring cook, asked himself: What dishes do I want to learn to make over the next year?

It was the kind of welcoming thought that can drift into the mind of someone leading a hectic life. Before it drifted out, Henning had two options to record his answer.

One was a hand-held digital assistant, rigged with an extra 128-megabyte memory card. The other, a little black notebook called a Moleskine, the style similar to those used by Hemingway, van Gogh and others who hung out in Paris cafes.

The 44-year-old Laurel businessman didn't hesitate. He opened the Moleskine to two fresh pages. He jotted down 20 dishes: oyster stew . . . grilled fish tacos with dill-lime sauce . . . Maryland red crab soup . . . pecan pie.

That urge -- to take command over a tidy, small expanse of paper, to quickly write in your own hand -- has turned the smartly marketed literary throwback into one of the odder trends of the instant-information age. Moleskine use has erupted in Washington and elsewhere, driven in part by a subculture of tech-savvy people otherwise electronically gadgeted to the hilt.

They bond online about Moleskines, often sharing their need for order. "I know some of you, like me, are multiple-Moleskine nerds," wrote one, setting off a chain of 118 responses. "It's sad, but this is how God's made us." He offered a way to keep them all straight: label the spines with an icon for each Moleskine style.

Another person, with computing and engineering degrees, touted the Moleskines filled with graph paper: "A godsend to tech/engg guys!"

When talking about their notebooks, users employ different pronunciations and joke that there are several: Mole-skin . . . Mole-skeen . . . Mole-skin-ee. But Moleskineus, an online retailer, calls it a mol-a-SKEEN-a.

Discussions on which pen to use can go on and on. "At the moment I have three pens in my jacket along with my Mole," an Internet systems engineer wrote. "Pigma Micron 01 . . . Uniball Vision Exact . . . Bueche-Girod ball-point."

The notebooks have their fetishistic qualities: stitched bindings that allow fully flat opening, thick paper that savors ink. At $10 to $15 apiece, they are what Henning, a vice president and director at Cornerstone Asset Management, describes as a low-entry luxury good. Like a pint of Haagen-Dazs.

"If you really want to stand out, you can't do it with technology," said Henning, who has hardly forsaken his hand-held digital assistant, which tracks his appointments and houses a digitized copy of the Bible. "This is something else," he said of Moleskines. "It's retro. It's making a statement."

And one that Moleskine devotees constantly make online. They've posted more than 2,400 photographs of Moleskines. Even Henning's wife, Betsy Mitchell Henning, the liturgical arts director at a local church, uploaded two images with a caption: "Eric's Moleskine contains the notes and chapter headings for his next book . . . and, as you can see, the list of dishes he will be learning to cook."

More recently, Mitchell Henning, 43, was reading a friend's Internet blog about Moleskine and was inspired to buy one herself. She wrote a blog about the purchase, describing how she struggled over the idea of spending so much money on a notebook. In the end, she said, writing on paper can memorialize what's important in life. Inside her new Moleskine, she is writing a detailed account of the day two months ago when she gave birth to her first child, Ian.

Americans are expected to purchase 2.2 million Moleskines this year, up from 970,000 in 2004, according to Modo & Modo, the notebook's Milan-based designer. The national bookstore chain Barnes & Noble counts Washington as its third-largest Moleskine selling ground, trailing New York and Philadelphia. In all, Washingtonians are expected to buy nearly 70,000 Moleskines this year.

"It is a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem," said Rockville's Ken Britz, 34, an engineer with Dynamic Animation Systems who develops software for training simulators used by the U.S. Navy.

He explains why: At work, things come so fast that the best way to note something important often is to write it down. Britz keeps a 5-by-8-inch Moleskine at hand; it doubles as a mouse pad. Should he need to take notes during a call or sketch out a flow diagram of a graphical user interface, he slides off the mouse and grabs a pen.

Britz keeps two other Moleskines for personal use. In these he writes scenes for his screenplay, which involves manipulated human genetics and King Arthur living in modern times.

A strong literary bent has always motivated journal users, of course, and the Moleskine is no exception. Those at the farthest end of this spectrum don't necessarily consider Moleskines an addendum to technology; they consider them a shelter from it.

Online Moleskine postings started popping up about 2004. One early reader: Jerry Brito, 29, a policy analyst at the Mercatus Center, an Arlington think tank.

"I can't believe I'm saying this," he said of Moleskines, "but I really think they're beautiful."

A former Web site designer, Brito has blogged about dividing Moleskines into color-coded, tabulated sections. That struck a chord with Omar Shahine, 29, a Microsoft project manager. Inside his office, Shahine keeps a PC, two 19-inch flat-screen monitors, a laptop, a webcam, a wireless weather forecaster, a hand-held e-mail device -- and his Moleskine. The Moleskine allows him to think on paper.

"It's kind of like a gadget in itself. It's just an analog gadget," he said.

In a blog titled "How the Moleskine Rocked My World," Shahine recommends Brito's blog.

Brito has written on such heady topics as domestic eavesdropping, Iraq and Internet copyright issues. But his Moleskine advice gets the most hits. At least 20 sites link to it, including ones in Spanish, Portuguese and German. "I'm going to go down as the Moleskine guy," Brito said.

A more recent convert is Annie White, 25, an economic consultant for the International Food Policy Research Institute, which works to cut hunger and malnutrition worldwide. She carried a 5-by-8-inch Moleskine (there's also a 3.5-by-5.5-inch version) while studying in Europe last year. She visited one of Hemingway's Paris haunts, Cafe de Flore , while reading "A Moveable Feast," his memoir of 1920s Paris. She ordered an espresso, as evidenced by the keepsake receipt glued inside her Moleskine: 4.40 Euro.

Among the contents of her current Moleskine are 20 things she wanted to knock off over Christmas break. No. 10: Learn to bake pie with Mom. Check.

"I am a compulsive list-maker," White said. "For me, I feel better when things are out of my head. I make lists constantly. Things to do. Things to buy. Things to worry about."

White checks the Moleskine blogs every few days, seeing what others are up to. But she's drawing the line at $40 extras. "I am not," she vowed, "about to buy these pens that they talk about."

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