The Allan Journal Rediscovered
The case for paper
Let’s get one thing out of the way: thumbs up for technology. I’m a fan and always have been. You have an Apple iPhone? Great. So do I. And I have an Apple Newton, too, just to show I was there before you, when it made no kind of sense. What you are about to read is not the rant of a technophobe. It’s just that, well, we’ve lost sight of something, which is this:
Paper is technology.
And for some applications, paper remains the best technology. It’s what I recommend to fuzzy-thinking friends who’ve allowed their multi-tasking devices to re-map their minds (or at least their attention spans). Start working on paper. Write things down. Let the page give you focus and clarity.
Paper is a great way to capture ideas. Where it excels, though, is in developing them. As a writer, I keep a journal. This is a fancy word for a bunch of paper bound in book form where I write down quotes, ideas, outlines, even drafts. I just happen to have reached the end of a journal I began about a year ago. Flipping back through the pages, I can see the development of ideas over time. Some of them went nowhere, some turned into articles or stories. In this journal there are about four or five novels in planning, too.
On my desk you’ll find legal pads, spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, notecards. They all have their uses, but to me, the highest refinement of the technology is the bound blank book. It’s portable. It encourages lengthy entries. It’s archival. Since I use fountain pens I have to be choosy about paper quality (the liquid ink used in fountain pens and rollerballs will bleed through bad paper). As much as I love the idea of Moleskine, they’re out thanks to the iffy paper. I use Apica notebooks and Rhodia spiral pads, both of which are fountain pen friendly and affordable.
When you’re spending a year or more with a bound book, though, I prefer something a little nicer, both for the aesthetic benefits and for the greater durability of a leather cover. Bound books from Graphic Image are nice, especially if you get them during one of the annual sales. My favorite, though, are Smythson journals with their signature blue lightweight paper. This paper is a wonder of technology. Unlike other thin papers, it guards against not only bleed-through but show-through. However, Smythson journals (especially the ones large enough to write in) are pricey, and in recent years the leather colors have gotten a little flashy and feminine for my taste.
That’s why the Allan Journal has been such a welcome discovery.
Rediscovering the Allan Journal
Or should I say rediscovery? I’ve written about the Allan Journal before, both the original slipcased version and the newer generation. What I haven’t done is explain the unique niche the journals occupy, and why it matters. Let me attempt that now.
If you’re carrying a journal around with you, there are two qualities that become paramount: it should hold a lot of writing, and it should be as portable as possible. The appeal of a journal full of thin, lightweight paper is similar to the appeal of old Airmail stationery. Back when you paid by weight, lighter paper meant more words for less money. In a sense, you still pay for weight. Heavier, thicker paper is nicer to write on, but you’re left with either fewer pages or more bulk. More bulk is bad because it means your journal is more likely to be left behind. Fewer pages means that while your journal is with you, it doesn’t go back as far. An important component of the journaling process — the process of developing ideas over time — is being able to reference older notes.
One way to get around the limitations of a lower page count is to capture handwritten pages in software like Evernote, which can archive them, make them searchable, and provide access via smartphone wherever you go. I’ve started snapping photos of my journal entries and logging them in Evernote. It can read my handwriting better than I can. Even so, I find that I prefer flipping through the pages of a journal to searching via Evernote. With the bound book, I don’t need to know what I’m looking for. I can experience my writing as a reader would, rather than as an archivist.
All that to say, I really like portable leather journals with lightweight paper. Although the Allan Journals are expensive compared to Apica or Rhodia, they are extremely competitive when you compare them to Smythson or Design.y. In terms of quality, I don’t know of any journal that tops the ones from Allan. The bindings are excellent and quite durable. After being thrown into bags, carried in a back pocket, and quite deliberately abused, my tan goatskin Allan Journal looks basically new. I’m starting to wonder if it’s indestructible.
The journals also tend to be wider than comparable notebooks, which allows me to fit more words on each line. If you’re using a notebook to jot things down randomly, this isn’t such a benefit — the extra width makes the smaller journal a little bit less pocketable — but if you write in complete sentences, it’s a delight.
There’s one complaint about Allan Journals that always seems to come up. No, make that two. The first one concerns the writing on the cover. They say JOURNAL in gold letters on front, whereas most users seem to prefer having no imprint. My beloved Smythsons are imprinted with the word NOTES (they also offer a wide variety of other, even less appealing titles). Frankly, I don’t notice anymore. A blank cover would suit me better, and failing that smaller letters so the titling doesn’t stand out. But I’ll take these journals just as they are, too, because as they are, they’re great.
The second, more substantive issue has to do with the ruled lines. They’re tight, really tight. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any journal with more closely spaced lines than the Allan. To fit between the lines, your handwriting needs to be compact. If you’re using a fountain pen, medium nibs and above need not apply. These journals call for fine or extra-fine nibs. Why is there so little space between the lines? I have no idea.
Through trial and error, though, I’ve discovered the value of tightly spaced ruling in a carry-everywhere journal. With its high page count, thin paper, and tightly spaced lines, the Allan Journal will hold a vast quantity of writing. Assuming you can write small enough, carrying around a years’ worth of notes for reference is no problem at all. And if you can’t write small enough, just skip a line. Writing on every other line gives you the roomier feel of other journals.
Like the thin paper used in Bibles, the pages of the Allan Journal work well with ink. Using fountain pens, I haven’t experienced any bleed-through — i.e., the ink doesn’t soak through the page. My writing stays crisp and tight, without feathering. Having said that, much like other thin papers (including the much-lauded Tomoe River paper beloved of fountain pen enthusiasts) your writing will show through on the reverse of the page, just as the text of Bibles printed on thin paper like this shows through. I write on both sides of the page, ignoring the show-through, but those of you looking for a more opaque surface will want to stick with thicker papers, or pony up for some of Smythson’s blue featherweight paper, which is the only thin paper I’ve found which doesn’t show through … at least, not much. Naturally, the ink used and the size of the nib will play a factor, too.
For a certain kind of writer, the type who wants to use one journal over a long period of time, rugged enough to carry everywhere but aesthetically pleasing, the Allan Journal is a near-perfect combination of features. Because of R. L. Allan’s focus on Bible publishing, the journals aren’t their main marketing focus, and therefore aren’t as well known as they deserve to be in the wider world. That’s too bad. When I see the way my fellow pen-and-paper fans enthuse over other journals, I can’t help thinking they would go wild over the Allan Journal. They’re available from EvangelicalBible.com and direct from R. L. Allan.
What I Like
Superb binding that, if you ask me, outshines Smythson on aesthetics and quality.
Excellent thin, FP-friendly paper.
What I Don’t Like
Super-tight line spacing that doesn’t play well with larger handwriting.
Above and below: the pigskin Allan Journal compared to the pigskin Smythson journal that’s been in my pocket off-and-on for the past year. In terms of binding quality, I would actually give the Allan an edge. I like the synthetic lining better than the Smythson’s paper lining.