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The Alwych Book: The perfect soft cover, the perfect notebook?

April 3rd, 2008 · 32 Comments · Uncategorized


Before we get to the review of Scotland’s Alwych Book

…I’d like to quote something from the Moleskine insert:

“Moleskine is the heir of the legendary notebook used for the past two centuries by great artists and thinkers, including Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin. This trusty, pocket-sized travel companion held their sketches, notes, stories, and ideas before they became famous images or beloved books. The little black notebook, with its typical rounded corners, elastic closure, and expandable inner pocket, was originally a nameless object. It was produced by a small French bookbinder, that supplied Parisian stationery shops frequented by the international literary and artistic avant-garde for more than a century.”

OK. Let’s calm down and take a deep breath.

This above paragraph is probably one of the most clever marketing gimmicks of all time. Even I have to admit that the idea of using the same extraordinarily simple tool as such luminaries as Hemingway and Picasso makes me believe that, to some extent, I’m halfway toward achieving some sort of artistic greatness myself.

This idea of a perfect notebook – the tool that could help you produce your very own For Whom The Bell Tolls!! – is very romantic. But it’s also extremely pretentious. I almost feel like it makes you hesitant to use the Moleskine as what it should be – a place to scribble just about anything that comes to mind. Instead, it challenges you to write something that someone like Hemingway or Picasso would put down – no crossing out anything, no second drafts, perfect organization, great penmanship. I’ve seen ludicrous websites where people post pictures of their Moleskines, which look like each page, each word, each line or letter, has been carefully planned out before being put on the page.

To me, using a notebook in this way is about the most useless thing I can imagine. My thoughts are never perfect the first time, my penmanship is atrocious, I don’t use one type of pen, my notebooks get beat up pretty quickly, and the last thing I want to think of is Hemingway glaring down at me from the heavens for not treating the Moleskine with utter reverence.

Here’s the insert you get with the Alwych Book, and I think you’ll see why I’ve been looking forward to reviewing it since I started this blog almost a year ago.

“This special Alwych book with its all-weather cover has been carefully manufactured for lasting indoor and outdoor use. Alwych books are widely used by: transport and delivery people, surveyors, architects, engineers, archaeologists, paleontologists, botanists, ornithologists, fishermen, gardeners, sports people, etc.”

Now that appeals to me infinitely more than the Moleskine insert. A notebook that is first and foremost utilitarian. None of this romantic nonsense of being used primarily by guys who are essentially gods in their respective fields (a fact that’s insanely untrue…but we’ll get into that another day). The type of notebook used by such non-luminary types as delivery guys and surveyors, yet also by archaeologists and engineers. Basically, the notebook for anyone and everyone. And an “All Weather” cover that can stand up to the elements? Could this be the perfect little black notebook??

OK, enough of that. Let’s check it out.

The Alwych Book is made in Scotland, and seems to have been around since at least 1932, when MacNiven and Cameron of Edinburgh began manufacturing a range stationery items that included “Greenback” ledgers and “Denbigh” cash books. In fact, they have even supplied past British expeditions to the Antarctic with notebooks. Not that I’m heading down south anytime soon, but it’s nice to know that if I do, I’m using the notebook of choice. The company was bought in the mid-90s by John Reid, who now sells their products primarily through the internet and direct sales, as the world of independent stationers has drastically diminished. BC Reader Steve points out that Monty Pythonite/travel writer Michael Palin swears by the Alwych, and always takes one when he travels.

The notebook measures in at 5.25″ x 3.25″ – about a third of an inch smaller than the standard Moleskine, and just slightly smaller than the old Stifflexible book. This is an excellent size. Not too small to be useless, like the miniature Miquelrius, and not too big that you can’t fit it in your pocket.

Speaking of fitting it in your pocket, this baby is a soft cover, but it’s also very firm – meaning it’ll bend, but it’s also stiff enough that you feel like it’s got some strength to it. Check it out in comparison to the larger soft cover Miquelrius:

Very cool. One of my complaints about the Miquerius is that it’s too bendable. The Alwych is the first notebook I’ve seen to successfully pull off the soft cover with a real sense of firmness.

The cover claims to be “all-weather,” and has been manufactured for lasting indoor and outdoor use. It feels very similar in texture to the Colored Edge notebook, a sort of faux-leather, but has a much thinner cardboard backing. Not sure how much of a beating it can actually take, but it seems very durable.

As you’ve probably noticed, the cover is emblazoned with the words “The Alwych Book,” and “With the all weather cover.” Normally, this would be a near deal breaker. If the Moleskine actually said “Moleskine” on the front in gold foil lettering, it’d totally change the notebook. But I’m letting this one go, as it feels like it blends in with the feel of the notebook. For example, “with the All Weather cover” sounds like an advertisement from the 1950s, not from a modern notebook trying to get buyers with snappy catchphrases. And at the moment, it’s just unknown enough so that “The Alwych Book” pretty much means nothing in the United States, though this might be different in other countries. And I’m a huge fan of colored page edges – in this case, the Alwych line has a standard blue. So extra points there.

One complaint about the overall shape: pointy corners. I have a feeling these things are going to get quite bent over repeated use, and that’s something that could easily be fixed with rounded edges.

Now for the innards. The book is just under half an inch thick and comes with 80 leaves (160 pages), which is a perfect amount. It keeps the notebook thin enough to bend, yet should last long enough. The pages are printed on a light cream paper, which is section-sewn, then, according to the insert, “welded” into the cover. I’m not sure about this welding process, but it seems to be well enough attached.

The inner cover is interesting:

But then, it seems to go along with their UK-a-tad-outdated-advertising scheme. Again, how many decades ago does the tagline “with the ALL WEATHER cover” seem relevant to? If it was more modern, or hipper or something, it’d detract substantially. But as it stands, I very much dig the retro feel of it. Almost similar to the increasingly popular Field Notes notebooks (side note: I’m hoping to someday review a black cover Field Notes notebook).

First page is white, then the lined pages:

Basically, an off white color with green lines (a great choice, and much more interesting than gray lines). The binding is pretty thick, preventing it from lying completely flat. But as I’ve said before, I’m not the type of person for whom this matters. I have to point out that the lines do not go to the top of the page, which seems like a bad decision to me, resulting in wasted space. The pages are about as heavy as Moleskine paper, meaning a heavy pen would probably do a bit of bleeding.

What about a bookmark, elastic, or back pocket? Nope, nope and nope. The major thing this notebook could use is an elastic. The very nature of it being a soft cover means that, over time, it’s going to get bent open. However, I rarely use the Moleskine bookmark (how hard is it to find a page, honestly?), and though I think the back pocket is a very cool addition, I have, to date, never actually put anything in it (and in the case of the Alwych, it would substantially restrict its flexibility). You can also get an alternate version of the Alwych, with lettered page tabs, as well as numerous different sizes.

I love the Alwych book. I love its simplicity, I love the colored page edges, the somewhat retro feel to it, the size, the colored page edges, and the perfect amount of flexibility. I think I’m going to use it as my main notebook, which means an update in a few months regarding its wear and tear.

I was hesitant to buy it, as it’s only available through the Alwych online store based in the UK, but the ordering process turned out to be very easy. In the US, prices are as follows for the 3.25″ x 5.25″ edition:

1 notebook, with shipping: £7.70 (approximately $15.25)
3 notebooks, with shipping: £17.51 (approximately $35, or $12 each)

So clearly, buying one is way more expensive than the Moleskine, but three is closer to home. So purchase wisely! I wish I had bought the three when I made my order. To purchase in the US, send an email to Margo Fyfe at mfyfe@wishawprinting.co.uk with your order and address. She’ll send you back a Paypal link to pay for it, then sit back and wait. I placed my order on a Monday, and it arrived in New York the following Tuesday. And I believe the notebooks get cheaper as the quantity increases, so be sure to ask in your email if you want more.

For you UK readers, simply go to the order page and place an order.

And for anyone else, just send an email to Margo at the above email address and she’ll send you the price+shipping.

Some time ago, the Alwych posted news that they were designing a “Super Alwych” edition, that never seems to have materialized. At the time, they asked readers for suggestions. I’m not sure if this is still floating around, but I’d make the following changes: slightly rounded page edges, a thin elastic, and lines that go to the top of the page. Possibly decrease the front cover logo. BUT be sure to keep the size, line spacing, number of pages, cover style, and flexibility. If you add a back pocket, make sure it doesn’t take away from the flexibility. And a notebook with twice as many pages would be pretty cool too.

Where to buy: see above, dummy.
Company website: The Alwych Book

If anyone reading lives in the UK, I’d love to know how popular/widespread these are there.

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