The Notebook by Roland Allen review: a history of scribbling

I’m in the middle of writing a novel about a writer who compulsively makes notes. Trouble is, I find myself spending too much time making notes about it and not enough time writing it.

This can be a hard cycle to break. Yet as Roland Allen shows in his restless, arresting new history of the notebook – which I have carefully noted and annotated – the note-making habit is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it has made a transformative, and practically limitless, contribution to civilisation.

Capitalism? It got a boost from the new availability of paper notebooks in 13th century Florence, which facilitated book-keeping. The Renaissance? It was born out of sketchbooks, which allowed the likes of Cimabue and Giotto to prepare for and achieve a new level of realism in their works. Elizabethan drama? This, too, owes a debt to the note. Sixteenth-century schoolchildren kept commonplace books – repositories for miscellaneous quotes, including long excerpts from classical authors, which formed the basis for some of Shakespeare’s greatest scenes.

Much ado about noting, you might say. Exactly so, although Allen could have made more of Hamlet. The fame of that play rests at least in part on the way it dramatises thought. We see this not only in the soliloquies but also when the hero cries out, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, that a man may smile and smile and be a villain.” By “tables”, he means “table-books”, the Elizabethan name for a type of commonplace book. As he says those words, he takes out a notebook and writes in it, giving us a vision to rival man-with-skull: man-with-notebook.  

Allen’s history is itself a commonplace book of sorts. Beautifully produced, with stylus-shaped dinkuses and lined endpapers to get you in the mood, it is packed with a wonderful range of insights and anecdotes. Notebooks, we learn, have cemented friendships, as in the alba amicorum, or “friendship books”, in which 17th-century Dutchmen showed their affection by adding their signatures along with sketches and snippets of poetry. They have also helped people work through trauma by noting their memories and feelings, using the technique known as expressive writing. And they have empowered the work of some of the greatest writers of the modern era.

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