Monday, July 8, 2019

An Infatuation With Good ~50 GSM Paper

One of my old vices - small-ish in total cost, but unfortunately maybe not that small in resulting waste over many years - from before I started this blog and before I started examining my spending habits more carefully, was buying up notebooks and journals that I'd then proceed to write or sketch in for only a few pages at most before moving on to the next book. Happily, things have changed quite a bit since then. I've cut down significantly on that habit of overbuying notebooks and have started actually using up the ones I have in their entirety.

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My KonMari-style decluttering (including of my desk and bookshelf) back in early 2015 was enough to teach me (among many other sobering lessons) not to wastefully accumulate notebooks anymore, given my horrible track record with actually using them. And when I returned to the private sector in late 2017, I learned that I actually could stick with and use up a notebook after all, utilizing a somewhat bullet journal-like system for keeping track of my to-do lists and other notes. I spent approximately a year and a half filling up my A5-sized Leuchtturm notebook with dot-grid pages, writing in it just about every day. Through that, I trained myself to be a lot less "precious" or finicky about how I used my notebooks, learning to not feel a little anxious, like I'd permanently marred a once-clean and perfect notebook - making me want to pull out a new one instead - if I made spelling or other errors, or if my handwriting wasn't always neat, or if I needed to cross some things out.

Looking back, I'd actually mostly stopped with my bad habit of over-buying and under-using notebooks and journals while I was in law school, I suppose because school and internships were keeping me busy. At the time, there wasn't any appeal to the idea of doing any more writing for fun in addition to what I needed to do for school and work. Plus, relying on digital solutions like Google Calendar proved to be far more practical than keeping a hard-copy planner while I was in law school. Once at my first job, a combination of my work calendar in Outlook and my personal Google Calendar was more than enough for scheduling purposes. And for a time, I added on the Wunderlist app as a way of keeping track of both months-out long-term deadlines and also small, immediate things I wanted to remember day-to-day.

Though I eventually did buy some smaller Rifle Paper Co. notebooks later on at my first workplace, to keep a separate and more condensed list of upcoming deadlines and important tasks, when my note-taking system on the firm-provided legal pads grew a little too haphazard and voluminous to be a good system for that purpose. (I take super-wordy, stream-of-consciousness-style notes at meetings or when I'm researching and planning out how to write something work-related.)

Much more recently, I might be slightly finding my way back to my old weakness for collecting pretty stationery, now that I think I've finally learned how to be fully committed to actually using it all up. The resurrection of this quirk of mine likely began with my trip to Japan last September, as stores there really do have the most wonderful selection of stationery.

It was in Japan that I finally had the chance to handle one of those popular Hobonichi Techo planners. While I ultimately tore myself away from them because a pre-printed planner just wouldn't be functional for me, I had become quite taken with the texture of the 52 GSM Tomoe River Paper used in the Hobonichis. That paper was lovely and smooth (but not too smooth and almost slippery, the way the Clairefontaine-made paper in Rhodia notebooks feels to me), and also much lighter and thinner than that of any other notebook I'd ever used, while still being reputed to be a high-quality paper on which most inks and pens would not bleed through. People even color in pictures or paint with watercolors on the pages of their Hobonichi planners, and the paper's supposed to hold up!

My current primary notebook for my vaguely bullet journal-style daily to-do lists is an A5-sized notebook with dot-grid pages made of 68 GSM Tomoe River Paper from the Taiwan-based Taroko Shop on Etsy. (On the off chance anyone is interested in buying one, I'd recommend getting and using an extra cover to protect it if you'll be carrying it around almost every day, as it doesn't have a particularly sturdy cover.) It's got nicer paper for my tastes than the Leuchtturm, smoother and thinner while still being quite substantial for writing on - though there is some "ghosting", where writing on one side shows through faintly on the other, same as with the Leuchtturm - but I didn't find the paper anywhere near as special to the touch as that of the Hobonichi Techos. I didn't spend much time thinking about where the difference came from. Because I hadn't actually bought one of the Hobonichis, it wasn't as if I could personally compare the experience of writing on 52 GSM versus 68 GSM Tomoe River paper, so I thought I was maybe sort of imagining the difference.

In any case, the 68 GSM Tomoe River paper of my current primary notebook isn't absolutely perfect for my needs and habits. The ink of the 0.38 mm Muji pens I use (also reasonably priced on Amazon) dries somewhat slowly on the Tomoe River paper, so I'm often smudging my own writing by accident. Plus, when I write, sometimes the opposite side of the sheet I'm working on picks up some ink from the other page facing it. The paper also sometimes gets scratches or impressions from the writing I was doing on pages that rested above it. Not sure if these are more an issue with the pen and ink, or with the paper. Or maybe I need to get a pencil board?

In the last few weeks, I might have gained a bit more insight into what the big difference is between my notebook and the Hobonichis. And really, it should have been obvious, as I knew the two types of paper had different GSM weights, and I also knew that there was an observable difference in the relative thickness and feel of each type of paper. Nonetheless, it took me quite a while to put two and two together, to figure out that - duh - the GSM weight was a fairly important detail for my tastes, to determine how much sheer enjoyment or tactile pleasure I derive from using particularly nice paper.

I didn't fully recognize the importance of the GSM weight of the paper to me until I had the chance to try writing on another ~50 GSM paper renowned for being high quality and fairly special: When Bloomingdales briefly offered a discount on one of those tiny (approximately the same height as and only a little wider than my iPhone 7) and ultra-fancy Smythson Panama notebooks, bringing the price down to a still-lofty ~$40, I decided to try one and see what all the fuss was about. I'd been thinking that I'd like a smaller notebook to carry around everywhere and use exclusively for blog-related note-taking, including planning out new entries, and the Panama notebook was the right size for that function.

Outlandish and extravagant as the notion might have sounded to me before, after writing frequently in that little Smythson Panama notebook for a week or two, I might actually sort of understand the appeal of Smythson notebooks, even at the extremely fancy full retail prices, ~$75 for the Panama size and ~$230 for the roughly A5 Soho size. Not that I would actually be able to bring myself to buy them at full retail, but I'm starting to understand why other people would. To me, the "x factor" with the Smythson notebooks, what makes them exceptional, is all in the paper.

The Smythson 50 GSM "Featherweight" paper they use in their non-refillable notebooks and agendas (but not in the "refills" for their writing folders, which come in ~80 GSM paper) is a true pleasure to write on. I'd never before understood how a paper could be "luxurious", even while being somewhat accustomed to using fancy resume paper or letterhead for my various job applications or work-related correspondence over the years, but writing on this Smythson paper feels like a true luxury, the way the pen glides over the paper. I'm almost a little embarrassed to have become so fond of writing on the Smythson 50 GSM "Featherweight", as I don't think most of my words feel worthy of being written on such extraordinarily fancy paper. To my mind, few words out there could possibly have such worth!

I'm somewhat more neutral on whether the other design elements on the Smythson notebooks are fully worth the price to me. The crossgrain leather covers that are most commonly used on their range of notebooks does look as if it'd be effectively indestructible, not likely to ever take on scratches or scuffs, or to patina at all, the way my refillable A5 notebook cover (pictured here) does. (Though I actually enjoy the look of leather that shows visible signs of aging, patina, or wear and tear, and wouldn't mind that on a notebook.) The Panama notebook does seem extremely well-constructed, retaining its shape even if it gets rolled up, squashed, or accidentally falls open in my bag. The corner of the back cover was a little bent out of shape when I received it, but I was able to flatten it back out easily, and it's no worse for the wear now. In any case, none of the other details stand out to me quite as much as the quality of the paper.

As with the 52 GSM Tomoe River paper in the Hobonichis, I find the Smythson 50 GSM "Featherweight" paper magical-feeling to the touch, so remarkably thin and light. I guess it's clear now that I have an absolute infatuation with the texture of ultra-thin paper! Despite the super-delicate nature of the paper, I don't get those issues where the back of the page I'm currently writing on sometimes picks up ink from other pages facing it, or where scratches and impressions from writing done on later pages sometimes get left on previous ones, so there's no need for a pencil board with the Smythson notebook.

And the Smythson 50 GSM paper takes ink remarkably well, relative to my limited experience, in that the writing from my 0.38 mm Muji pens dries pretty much immediately as I write. I'd have to try very hard to get it to smudge, unlike with the Tomoe River paper notebook I've been using. Although I haven't been able to personally test out the 52 GSM Tomoe River paper, if it's anything like the 62 GSM version in my current notebook, the Muji pens I like will also smudge on the 52 GSM if I don't learn how to be more careful and move more slowly when I write. There's a nice, neat little comparison photo out there showing the difference between how the Tomoe River and the Smythson paper take to one particular pen and ink.

One other notable difference is that Tomoe River paper crinkles up and wrinkles noticeably with use as it absorbs ink from writing or drawing, causing the book to look as if it has expanded a little from the side, an effect I've also noticed with my current primary notebook. In contrast, from the pages I've used up in the Smythson Panama notebook so far (close to ~10% of the total, I've had a lot of blog-related ideas to write down!), there isn't any such effect, the pages stay flat even after being written on. Note that most people, myself included, actually like how the Tomoe River paper crinkles up, as it really shows that the notebook or planner has been well-used and "lived in".

I suspect that "true" stationery connoisseurs - who likely do at least some of their writing with fancier and far more interesting pens than my humble Muji pen of choice - would think it a bit silly that I'm so obsessed with these nice, fancy papers. After all, my favorite pen also works perfectly fine on the paper from your basic Mead notebooks or composition books that one used in elementary school (and not even the FiveStar ones, which we considered fancy back in those schoolyard days!). It appears that most people who rave about the virtues of Tomoe River or Smythson paper online are fountain pen users, which I most decidedly am not.

Any other stationery fans here? What pens and notebooks do you gravitate to? Does anyone else also know the feeling of buying up notebooks or sketchbooks, but hardly being able to use them for fear of "ruining" them with careless or sloppy writing, or by drawing up a sketch or picture that turns out looking wrong? I'm glad that I'm no longer quite as "precious", fastidious, or finicky about actually writing in my notebooks, it's a lot less stressful to use them now than it was back in those days!

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