My Favorite Notebooks

A pile of assorted notebooks featured in this article, including options from Clairfontaine, Life, Midori, Galen Leather, and more.

What’s a great writing tool without something to use it on?

As a traveler, photographer, writer, and obsessive list-maker, I need my notebooks to fill various roles. Some are used as traditional journals and planners; others may be for project-specific notes, recipes, or explorations of a single narrow topic. Some may document an entire production project. And a few may simply be for jotting down and capturing thoughts/notes on the go. Portability, layout, design, durability, and usefulness are all factors that I consider to be just as important as whether or not I can get ink to sheen on the paper.

Feel is a big thing for me; I can drill down into the technical aspects of paper and ink interactions, but other people out there will do that a lot better than me (see fellow fountain pen enthusiast and photographer Fountain Pen Love). What matters to me is how a particular product fits into my workflow; how well suited it is to the specific task or function I ascribe to it. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all available notebooks — merely a roundup of some of my personal favorites (which leans heavily towards A5 and pockets sized books since those are what I use the most). I’ve presented these in alphabetical order because this is a collection used for distinct tasks rather than a ranking. Everyone’s taste is different, so please consider this a list of products I endorse based on my own experiences with them — rather than universal recommendations I think are suited for everyone.

This list is fluid, and I expect to update it over time as I find new products and have a chance to try new things. I feel like I accumulate notebooks at a pretty rapid pace and have several I hope to review in the future, sitting in a drawer waiting their turn.

Clairfontaine French Ruled

I use these almost exclusively for practicing my handwriting. When I set out to try and reteach myself cursive after avoiding it for three decades, I found that the Séyès ruling in these books was an enormous aid to me as it gave me a visual reference for developing consistent spacing and height with my lettering.

However, I’m not a fan of wire-bound notebooks for functional everyday writing. I find they are a pain in the ass to get in and out of full bags and always end up getting caught on something — I’d rather just keep a Rhodia legal pad handy for jotting notes and scratch work. But these specific notebooks served a convenient purpose for me, and still do as I work to improve the legibility and flair of my writing. As something with one particular task in mind, I think these are wonderful, but It’s a narrow scope.

I’m interested in trying the classic clothbound Clairfontaine French Ruled notebook soon to see if it might be a better fit for me — Same paper without the wire bind. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet since I still have a few more of these to fill, and I’m loathe to buy anything new until I use up the ones I already have.

Size: A4
Pages: 100 pages (50 sheets)
Binding: Wirebound
Weight: 90 gsm
Paper Color: White
Cost: $7.00

Clairfontaine Neo Deco

I use these primarily for topical journals and workbooks, and I think that at 96 pages, they are the perfect size to explore a single subject or narrowly focused project. Right now, I have a few going — one for bread baking, one for ramen, one to catalog my pen collection, and one for this blog. I love the covers that feature Art Déco patterns and color schemes, including pops of metallics — they make it easy to discern which book I’m grabbing off my desk at a glance.

These notebooks feature incredibly smooth ivory colored paper that is a joy to write on. They also feature a stitched spine, which I prefer to the glued spines of the larger Clairfontaine basic notebooks and the Clairfontaine Sakura Dream staple-bound notebooks. These are light enough to slip an extra one or two into my bag along with my everyday journal and not really notice much excess weight.

The cover designs also make unique photo backgrounds for product shots in a pinch.

Size: A5
Pages: 96 pages (48 sheets)
Weight: 90 gsm
Binding: Stitched
Paper Color: Ivory
Line Spacing: 8mm
Cost: $8.50

Galen Leather Everyday Notebook

I’m not the biggest fan of Tomoe River as a notebook paper. I love it as a loose-leaf paper for writing letters and notes, and there is no denying that it shows off the attributes of ink in the most beautiful ways. But it always feels too delicate and precious to me, and I am hard on my notebooks — and by hard, I mean I treat them terribly. They get stuffed into bags and cases on trips, abused on production sets, and accumulate storied collections of wine and tea stains. Having a notebook of what feels like a delicate tracing paper prone to ghosting has always left me feeling like I have to be too cautious with it — which is why I generally opt for thicker paper in my notebook.

That said, I understand it is a wildly popular product space, and I’m trying to explore what’s out there to see if there is a journal that does end up resonating with me. So far, though, every time I find one that comes close, there always seems to be one or two critical flaws that really prevents it from being a perfect fit.

The Galen Leather Everyday Notebook comes really close to my ideal — save for the fact that I really want a lined Tomoe River Journal. I can’t stand having to slip a line or graph template sheet behind a blank sheet (regardless of how thin and transparent it is) to write. It’s one more thing to lose in my bag or ruin and feels cumbersome to me. Beyond that, I think that this book is constructed beautifully with 400 pages of 52 gsm Tomoe River and a strong but flexible cover that is easy to travel with. I use this primarily as an ink journal right now.

This is one area where I expect to make a lot of changes in the future. There are many Tomoe River notebooks I want to try out that could be better fits for me than this. So expect updates on this in the future and recommendations to be phased out as I try more products. I have high hopes for the Nanami “Writer” notebook (if I can ever get my hands on one) and am also intrigued by Hippo Noto (although the cost, being nearly double the price of the Galen Leather version for only 100 more pages and heavier 68 gsm paper, is a deterrent)

If there is a Tomoe River notebook out there that you love please let me know in the comments.

Size: A5
Pages: 400 pages (200 sheets)
Weight: 52 gsm
Paper Color: White
Binding: Sewn and Glued
Ruling: Blank
Cost: $25.00

Hobonichi Plain Notebook

This is the exception to everything I’ve just said about Tomoe River Paper. And the one notebook I’ve found made from the stuff that I really love. I think the main reason is that this feels like a notebook in the classic sense — something that I can sit down and do some work in. It isn’t a notebook in the guise of a diary or journal where there is just as much emphasis placed on it being an object as being a tool. This feels incredibly functional and useful.

I wouldn’t use this for long writing sessions or a diary because of the very small and tight graph ruling, but it works well as a more extensive creative journal and project planner. Lots of pages, reasonably light, lays flat, and I love the tight spacing of the graph (3.7 mm) that helps me jump seamlessly from a brainstorming session to prop inventories to sketching out storyboards and lighting diagrams all in one place. Another thing to note is that the book is split into four sections — each denoted by the changing color of the graph lines (red, blue, green, and purple). Handy for when you want to compartmentalize your work into different themes or topics.

Size: A5
Pages: 288 pages (144 sheets)
Weight: 52 gsm
Paper Color: White
Ruling: 3.7 mm Graph
Cost: $18.00

Life Noble Note

I’m a massive fan of this notebook, and I think it is one of the flagships of the Life notebook line — which is consistently good. But, while this is a really high-end product, it does have one flaw that prevents it from being at the peak of my list.

Like all Life notebooks, the paper is fabulous. It shows sheen and shading without a ton of feathering, bleeding, or ghosting. Writing on this paper is a real pleasure, and it seems like it handles anything I throw at it, from pencils to gel pens to the wettest juiciest fountain pen nibs. But I get a little annoyed with the breaking in process with these books when they are new. Because this book is made up of four larger signatures instead of several smaller ones, it does not lay flat unless you really work at it. It is can also be one of the more expensive notebooks on this list depending on where you are sourcing it from. I feel like Life should break this down into smaller signatures and really focus on improving the binding for a lay-flat experience. This could be my number one notebook if those issues were addressed — but until then, this will stay in a very competitive # 2 slot behind the Midori MD for me based on the pure utility of the MD.

Size: A5 (though A4, B5, and B6 sizes are available)
Pages: 200 (100 Sheets)
Paper Weight: 85 GSM
Paper Color: Ivory
Binding: Sewn
Ruling: 8mm Lined, Blank, or 5mm Grid
Cost: I want to note that prices for this book can vary a lot depending on where you buy from. I’ve seen prices ranging from $12.95 to over $20.00 per book depending on the vendor.

Life Pistachio

My favorite pocket notebook!

I love Life paper so much, and the Pistachio may my favorite for functional every day jotting — all my errands and quick notes go in these. I usually keep one of these A6 notebooks in my pen case, One in my car, and one in each of my camera or gear bags. The light green ruling is actually really cheerful and fresh but still fades into the background enough to not be distracting. The paper is smooth and white (though sometimes I swear there is a tiny bit of a tint of cyan to it), and at about $3.50 each, these are cheap enough to stock up on and always have handy. The similar Life Vermillion is also a good option here — though I find that I prefer the colors of the Pistachio overall and will probably replace my A5 Vermillion notebooks with these when I run out of my current stock.

Size: A6
Pages: 64 pages (32 sheets)
Weight: 85 gsm
Binding: Thread
Paper Color: White
Ruling: 5 mm Graph
Cost: $3.50

Life Vermillion

Similar in construction to the Pistachio (same sewn binding and cover stock), the difference here is the paper. Most notably, the Vermillion is the warmer companion to the Pistachio’s cold cleanliness. Sporting a red ruling and a much warmer paper stock — creamy ivory with what seems like a touch of orange/yellow undertone. I like to use these books in the A5 size as smaller inserts for my Traveler’s journal and I keep them focused on brainstorming and ideation, alongside my thicker Midori journals.

Size: A5
Pages: 64 pages (32 sheets)
Weight: 85 gsm
Binding: Thread
Paper Color: Cream
Ruling: 7 mm Lined
Cost: $6.00

Midori MD

These are the notebooks that I use the most for my journaling and writing. Minimalist and straightforward (I would argue that they are just shy of being deconstructed), the Midori MD notebook is my personal favorite. From the exposed spine to almost non-existent branding on the cover — the MD is the antithesis of so many notebooks with bombastic colors and obtrusive branding. The MD is quiet, peaceful, and puts the focus solely on your creative work.

I use both the lined and grid versions (one for a diary and the other for a daily journal, respectively) and find that the paper performs amazingly when it comes to fountain pen inks. A pleasant light beige, the paper is smooth but gives a bit of welcome feedback. It shows sheen and shading while minimizing bleeding and feathering. On top of that, the ink dries relatively quickly on it. The book is constructed to lay very flat when open, which helps make writing feel like the simple pleasure it should be.

Each version has some little details that I love. For instance, the grid version isn’t actually a proper grid but a small series of open boxes that give it a slightly different look when you get up close. I also think that the choice of a nice light cyan makes for a grid that is visible but unobtrusive. In the lined version, I appreciate the pale grey lines and the bolder center line that allows the pages to be neatly compartmentalized when I want to break down thoughts in a specific manner. The line spacing is perfect as well; not too cramped, but not so expansive that you feel you’re losing page real estate to it. The bookmarks use thin and flexible ribbon that never seems to get in the way.

One warning I will offer is DO spring for a cover or keep the paraffin dust jacket if you plan to take this with you day to day or use it in anything less than a cleanroom environment. The unfinished and light-toned cover material is an absolute magnet for anything that you don’t want to stick to it: ink, food, pet hair, dust, grime… etc. I swear I stained it once just by talking too loudly. Midori offers some very nice covers for these —the Cordoba paper ones always look great, or you can keep it in a more substantial leather notebook cover like the ones offered by Galen Leather (which is what I keep mine in)

Size: A5
Pages: 176 pages (88 sheets)
Weight: Midori lists no official weight, but Fountain Pen Love lists it as 68 gsm
Binding: Stitched
Paper Color: Ivory
Ruling: 7 mm Lined or 5mm Graph
Cost: $10.25

Rhodia Notepads

This is a bit of an honorable mention since technically (and explicitly), this is not a notebook but a staple-bound paper pad. However, I find these pads are always useful and convenient. I love these for recording ephemeral information, scratch work, production notes, and anything that I might want to later remove and integrate into another source (like a job jacket or binder). These notepads handle fountain pen ink wonderfully, are cheap, always handy, and easy to travel with. You can’t beat these for pure utility, and I keep them available in multiple sizes.

These are a must have for me. And I burn through them quickly.

Final Thoughts

All of these books have found their way into my regular rotation at one point or another. Some for very general uses like the Midori MD and the Neo Deco — others have particular benefits like the Clairfontaine French Ruled — but all have proven to be useful and effective notebooks. I hope you’ll give some of these a try and find them as useful as I do.

Have a favorite book you think I should test out or want to know my thoughts on? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to track one down for a future review.

(The notebooks in this review were purchased by me for my own collection. This post contains no sponsored content, affiliate links, or items provided for review by vendors/manufacturers)

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