/ 5 April 2013

Making mountains out of Moleskines

Writers take not: The Moleskin has become a fetish object for authors.
Writers take not: The Moleskin has become a fetish object for authors.

Purchase one of these marvels of stationery engineering — the strokable black cover with rounded corners, the bookmark, the expandable back pocket, the sewn pages — and it surely won’t be long before you are composing muscular sentences about exotic perambulations and recently deceased animals.

The Moleskine has become such a writer’s fetish object that the company is now planning to go public on the Milan Stock Exchange, potentially valuing it at €600-million.

Hemingway and Chatwin never actually used a Moleskine. The Italian publisher Modo&Modo created the brand in 1997, so its “heritage” — the website also mentions Picasso and Van Gogh — is more myth than fact. Even so, Moleskines (based on a description by Chatwin of a type of notebook he used to buy in France) are good products. And writers must be allowed their tool obsessions — some swear by £80 mechanical pencils, others by an obscure brand of Japanese gel pen.

Famously, the science fiction novelist ­William Gibson composed the ­stories in which he delivered to the world the first envisioning of “cyberspace” in fiction on an old manual typewriter.

It might seem strange to be floating a paper company in this digital age, but Moleskines are paradoxically popular with the techy subculture of productivity, or Getting Things Done. Smartphones offer innumerable apps for to-do lists or sketching, but many find it easier to organise themselves with pencil and paper.

And a Moleskine will never crash and lose all your data. Of course, it also can’t be backed up to the “cloud”, but those who don’t want their screenplay ideas scrutinised by Silicon Valley corporations will be happy with that too.

Rising stock markets this year have increased confidence for initial ­public offerings generally, compared with the gloomy peak of the financial crisis. It’s true that the Facebook initial public offering last year was almost a new dotcom boom and bust all in one, but perhaps investors will feel happier about a firm with tech-hipster cred that also makes something tangible.

Moleskine is now owned by the private-equity firm Syntegra, but the company is still careful (perhaps all the more careful) to cocoon the product in a nimbus of feel-special rhetoric. For example, Moleskines are apparently “nomadic objects”.

Let’s assume this doesn’t mean the notebooks will wander off by themselves when you most need them. No, it must be that owning a Moleskine makes you a nomad, a footloose cosmopolitan litterateur, even if you’re only taking it down to Starbucks

to scrawl in ostentatiously while frowning.

The company even claims the Moleskine brand is “synonymous with culture, travel, memory, imagination and personal identity”, which is a lot to be synonymous with.

At base, the real appeal of Moleskine’s initial public offering is not the bookish psychobabble but the fact that the company operates in the market identified by ­analysts as ­Italian luxury goods. So the ­person who buys a Moleskine, far from being some kind of dissident ­intellectual, is really just a close cousin to customers of Bulgari and Salvatore Ferragamo.

If Moleskine succeeds, who might follow? The world of stationery obsession is a deep rabbit hole. Some claim to find Moleskines too déclassé and mainstream, and instead prefer the all-American minimalism of Field Notes, or the more obscure cachet of Moleskine’s older German rival, Leuchtturm1917. Scientists have yet to determine whether using a Leuchtturm is likely to make your prose style more like Arthur Schopenhauer’s. But the important thing, as with a Moleskine, is to make sure people notice you are writing in it. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

Steven Poole is the author of You Aren’t What You Eat