object — A 20 Year-Old Sketchbook

This sketchbook just turned twenty years old.

I began keeping it in the final months of my senior year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). A few friends and I had managed to register for the same elective art history course that spring, and in anticipation of all the note-taking I expected to do, I walked over to the RISD Store and purchased a notebook. I chose this particular book because it was relatively small – 7’x9’ — unruled, and cheap. It turned out that I liked it so much that I ended up using this exact kind of notebook for the next five or so years, until I could no longer find them.

There was something about the size, heft, and the weight of the paper that was a perfect fit for me. I used to perform soliloquys for friends at coffee shops about the joys of a cheap notebook.

You’ll notice that I covered the book in cloth. I did that a few years later — in 2005 — while living in Malaysia. The cover had gotten pretty worn out and though I’d already moved on to another sketchbook — probably two of them in between this one and the one I was still working through at the time — I decided it would be cool to cover it in some fabric. Then, I used some letraset sheets to label it INDEX, except I wasn’t paying close attention and instead of the D, I transferred an I. I went with it, so INIEX it was.

Here’s where the economy of these notebooks really shined — the plastic wrap on the book when I found it in the store promised “Archival” materials and Acid-Free paper. Turns out that was for real. As I flip through the pages of this book, it’s astonishing to me how well it has held up. It lived with me over a year in the hottest, most humid climate I’ve ever encountered and yet its pages remain white, adhesives didn’t undo, and colors did not fade. Neon orange and pink are still very neon. The only page that has shown its age is the one I covered in Scotch tape. It has yellowed and browned — ambered? — with time. The rest, though, other than the wearing at the edges of the page, is as it was.

I have filled 26 books since then, which means I have averaged just slightly more than one per year. I had a few dry spells, which would surprised the me that INIEX’ed the cover of this particular book. Back then, I was filling 1-3 per year.

There is nothing particularly good in this book — no image I’m particularly proud of. But there is one particular spread of pages that feels like a major moment in the INDEX of my life. It’s the one that I later stamped NOV 26 2003. I can remember the evening I sat with the book open on my lap, in my father’s living room in Michigan, watching some documentary on the discovery of the settlement of Canal Huyuk. I quickly drew a picture of the way some of the program’s archaeologists described how it might have been. It was the night before Thanksgiving. My Dad had a fire going. Everything felt good. I can even remember how my body felt — a feeling of newness and goodness that I didn’t fully recognize but which now, at 43, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel again. I was a few months into having started my own freelance business just after graduating. I had no idea what I was doing, nor what I was in for over just the next five years. Looking back on these pages feels like peering into a calm before the storm preserved forever.

At the time in my life that this book was created, I wasn’t especially interested in saving things. Moving as often as I had by that point, things just seemed like a very literal burden. But twenty years later, I treasure this object. I’m grateful for its endurance. I look forward to when flipping through it will be interesting to my children.

How incredible that all we need to travel in time is an object and some patience.

Written by Christopher Butler on April 22, 2023,   In Log

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