The Timeless Art of Keeping a Notebook

The most important relationship you will ever have is with yourself.

But sometimes, you need a companion. Another person won’t do. Although a good friend is one of life’s blessings, you can’t always dump all your existential dreads, worries, anxieties and insecurities onto another soul, not least because it won’t be pleasant for them, but also because it’s not very practical.

Movies may portray as romantic the act of someone calling their friend at 2am on a Tuesday to vent their latest shower thoughts, but I don’t need anyone calling me in the middle of the night or the minute they get a “totally” genius idea. So, what’s the closest thing to another human being, that will always be there when you need it, and won’t be awkward to share your thoughts with it at 2am on a Tuesday?

Well, I think it’s a notebook.

Big, pocket size, thin or chunky. A companion who can hold your thoughts, no matter how grandiose or insignificant. Recording your thoughts is an activity that will put you alongside numerous other great historical figures who used writing to preserve their ideas and leave a piece of themselves for future generations to draw inspiration from (even if some didn’t intend it that way.)

I wrote about journaling before, but this is more about the ethos of the practice, rather than any concrete techniques, like Bullet Journaling.

I do most of my journaling in Obsidian, along with weekly and monthly reviews. But as much as I loved the structure and accountability of these approaches, I noticed that there was little room left for experimentation, mistakes and improvisation.

On top of that, using a digital tool isn’t very convenient when you’re out and about. Recording notes in a phone app will do, but it doesn’t provide the same intimacy and reflection quality. Because we can always press the “undo” button, a digital note will inherently be more polished. If a phrase turned out clunky, we can simply retype it. But in doing so, we lose the process, we lose the messiness of raw emotion and the unfiltered thought. Editing our ideas is much easier with a digital tool, and we’ll be tempted to only leave the final version, losing the iterations that got us there.

The beauty of a notebook is that it indulges provisional thoughts, half-finished ideas, unpolished sketches, and drafts for treatises not yet refined. 

I like to imagine a common thread that runs through the centuries and connects all these notebooks together. Both the famous and the ones belonging to ordinary people. Above all, I think they sprung from a curiosity about life, that bleeds into wonder, from a calling to explore a subject in its deepest forms, whether a scientific theory, everyday observations about the world or one’s own mind.

Since a notebook is literally a blank book, without any previous structure imposed on us, it can take any shape our mind conceives of.

Let’s marvel at some of the most inspiring notebooks in history.

Leonardo da Vinci

Image of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook
Leonardo da Vinci notebook

As the offspring of a long line of notaries, Leonardo da Vinci had an instinct for keeping records. Jotting down observations, lists, ideas, and sketches came naturally. In the early 1480s, shortly after his arrival in Milan, he began his lifelong practice of keeping notebooks on a regular basis.1Walter Isaacson, “Leonardo da Vinci”

This man’s genius still reverberates across centuries, like a gravitational wave of brilliance that makes everyone who encounters it marvel at its excellence.

We have about 7200 page of his records, which are believed to account for a quarter of what he actually produced. Let that sink in. As you can see in the image above, the entire page is covered with text or sketches, one reason being that paper was relatively expensive, so Leonardo wanted to maximize every bit of “real estate” he had. That, along with his extensive interests across many domains of study, produced a medley of ideas, from different fields, all jumbled together.

The juxtapositions can seem haphazard, and to some extent they are; we watch his mind and pen leap from an insight about mechanics, to a doodle of hair curls and water eddies, to a drawing of a face, to an ingenious contraption, to an anatomical sketch, all accompanied by mirror-script notes and musings.

Leonardo used his notebooks for a vast range of purposes, from sketching theater apparatus to the anatomy of birds or the emotions of people. As he wrote somewhere “As you go about town, constantly observe, note, and consider the circumstances and behavior of men as they talk and quarrel, or laugh, or come to blows.” This indicates how much weight he put on observation, the simple act of noticing and drawing conclusions or speculations. His keen eye and master observational skills is one of the defining reasons why his art excelled as it did: he infused it with an authentic veneer of life.

Unfortunately, Leonardo rarely directed his gaze inwards, at his own emotions and thoughts, so we don’t have many records of his internal state in his notebooks.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin Sketch of how evolution works
The famous page out of Darwin’s notebook B, depicting the theory of evolution by natural selection

He believed that one key to evolution lay in initially slight hereditary difference; that when a species is divided into two populations by, say, a body of water, what are at first merely two variants of the species grow apart until they qualify as new and distinct species.2Robert Wright, “The Moral Animal”

Darwin started recording his observations on the natural world in notebooks while he was aboard the HMS Beagle, during his voyage across South America. He unpretentiously named his notebooks alphabetically: A, B, C, D, etc.

He opened his first notebook on evolution in 1837. Since we know the chronological order of his notebooks (unlike with Leonardo ones for example), we can witness how his understanding of natural selection and species have evolved.

The “I think” at the top of the page demonstrates his tentative scientific thought, as well as his humble character. It’s not “I know” or “This is how it is,” but “I think,” a fundamental phrase for a human, a defining feature of our civilization. Mountains of scientific and humanistic advances have been made by people who dared to utter “I think.”

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman notebook pages
A page from one of Feynman’s teenage notebooks.

Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. For the first but not the last time he reorganized his knowledge.3James Gleick, “The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”

Richard Feynman, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century, captivated the attention of scientists, as well as lay people, a testament to his intoxicating curiosity, unrelenting search for truth and enthralling charisma. His beguiling blend of playfulness and rigor produced a riveting character that showed both in his personal, as well as professional life. I’ve talked before about his approach to problem solving. That wasn’t the only peculiar way of doing things. Apparently, he started a notebook on things he didn’t know, pertaining to physics, so that he could pick the subject apart and tease out any muddled thoughts and inconsistencies he had.

For Feynman, his notebooks consisted the scaffolding of his thought, structures that supported his intellectual endeavors.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee notebook pages
Paul Klee describing color theory

Paul Klee was a prolific 20th century artist (primarily known for his paintings), whose lectures at the Bauhaus school and his personal essays on design were compiled in 2 volumes entitled The Nature of Nature and The Thinking Eye, which have been compared in their depth to the Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

Art critics have stated that what Newton is to classical mechanics, Klee is to art and design, because he was the first to compile a set of principles that deal with the mechanics of art: the use of color, shape, composition, etc. His main area of expertise was color theory.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius "Meditations" 1811 edition
Marcus Aurelius “Meditations” 1811 edition

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.4Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

One of the most well-known personal journals belongs to Marcus Aurelius, which is now published as Meditations. In it, we find the intimate thoughts of the Roman emperor (written between 170-180 C.E.), written during his military campaigns. The work is divided into 12 books, each addressing a different aspect of his life. Aurelius is perhaps one of the better known Stoics, whose philosophy is really making a comeback in today.

His work is sometimes compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions.



  • 1
    Walter Isaacson, “Leonardo da Vinci”
  • 2
    Robert Wright, “The Moral Animal”
  • 3
    James Gleick, “The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”
  • 4
    Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

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