Why I Read Physical Books and Start Most of My Writing by Hand

There are two patterns that I’ve noticed in my friends that are prolific and poetic writers.

The Benefits

According to an article in the New Yorker, “Moleskine-style” notebooks have been produced since the 1850’s, by small French bookbinding companies, and distributed in Paris bookstores. They were used by Picasso, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and the like. (“Moleskine” refers to the traditional oilcloth binding; moleskines are not made out of moles’ skins).

Even though the company was started in 1997, the popularity of the notebooks paradoxically soared with the emergence of blogs. In his interview on The Unmistakable Creative, former PR director Erik Fabian described the Moleskine as a “platform for your imagination”.

Over the last 10 years, and more than 700 interviews, there are two patterns that I’ve noticed in my friends that are prolific and poetic writers:

  1. They write in physical notebooks
  2. They read physical books

Sarah Kathleen Peck, Amber Rae, and Ryan Holiday all share at least one if not both of these patterns. Amber and Sarah make music from their words. Ryan has written 6 books in 6 years.

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Until late 2013, I did most of my reading on a Kindle. At the start of 2014, I interviewed Amber and Dani Shapiro on The Unmistakable Creative.

  • Even though I’d already read the book on Kindle, I immediately ordered a physical copy of Dani’s book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. To this day, I return to it regularly, using many quotes in blog posts, and am inspired with ideas for my articles. It has more underlined passages and sentences than any of my other books. After that interview, I also switched exclusively to reading physical books.
  • I resisted writing in a physical notebook because my handwriting is terrible. Sometimes, I even have a hard time reading it. But Amber encouraged me to fall in love with my chicken scratch, and I have started all of my writing in a Moleskine ever since.

Since making these changes, I started to notice two patterns in my own life:

  • I retain far more from reading physical books than I ever have from Kindle or audiobooks
  • Physical writing in notebooks has made me more present, productive, and prolific as a writer

The benefits of reading physical books and writing by hand far outweigh the costs of being slower and taking up space.

Writing by Hand

A physical notebook is one of the best distraction-free writing tools because there’s nothing else competing for your attention. You have no choice but to be present and focused. You’re also forced to slow down because you can’t feverishly jot down every thought that comes to mind.

If you’re somebody who does your writing early in the morning, it keeps you from turning on your devices first thing in the morning. And it prevents you from starting your day on the internet, which damages your brain.

“When we write by hand, we’re forced be more economical and strategic with our language, crafting notes in our own words. To do that, we have to listen more closely, think about the information, and essentially distill others’ words and thoughts through our own neurological filtration system and onto the page,” says Ryder Carroll in his new book The Bullet Journal Method.

If you’re not convinced, try the following exercise:

  1. Write down a quote from one of your favorite books, podcasts, etc. on your computer and riff on it for 10 minutes.
  2. Repeat the exercise, but this time use a physical notebook instead.

Chances are that you’ll notice a big difference in the speed at which you think and a better ability to manage your attention.

Your behavior is linked to your environment whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. If you set your notebook out the night before, sit down at your desk, or wherever you choose to write with a pen in hand, eventually the notebook and your writing habit will be linked.