Review by Tina Koyama
Field Notes Brand’s latest quarterly edition is out: Dime Novel. The notebook itself is a delightful surprise in many ways, but before I get to that, I’ll mention the theme. An homage to the cheap paperback novel of the mid-19th century, Dime Novel was inspired by both the genre’s form and its history. Go view the video – it’s an interview with a Northern Illinois University librarian who talks about this fascinating category of “literature.” (I use quotation marks because the stories in those books were apparently of questionable literary quality. You can judge for yourself by reading samples online at NIU.) I’m not always a fan of the quarterly editions’ themes (Utility and Workshop Companion did nothing for me), but Dime Novel informs us of a mostly forgotten genre while also reminding us of Field Notes’ initial inspiration of a notebook for the commoner. I like that.
Dime Novel books come two to a pack. Subscribers receive two packs and a collectible button.
Although it’s probably difficult to see in my photos, the covers are nicely embossed – remarkably, even the mouse print on the back cover (I’m going to have to get out my needlework glasses to read it).
The fly leaf is illustrated with a printing press.
Now for the surprises. The first was the size: 4 ¼ by 6 ½ inches. Patterned after the paperback format of the inspiration source, it may be unique in the notebook world. It’s about a half-inch taller than A6 and a smidge wider. Some pocket carriers might have a problem with this larger size (and I know that some collectors who like keeping all Field Notes in the same-size box are taking issue with it), but it fits comfortably in my hand and bag. It’s the “just right” bear between the standard Field Notes form factor and its larger Arts & Sciences size (also available in the Pitch Black Note Book).
The next surprise was the binding: “The 72 body pages are Smyth-sewn in three, 24-page signatures with Coats Dual-Duty thread, then securely glued into the cover.” When I first read this statement on the site before receiving the books, I audibly groaned. I thought it was going to be similar to Black Ice’s glued PUR binding which, although sturdier and more attractive than staples, won’t allow the pages to open completely flat, no matter how much it’s forced. That ridge at the gutter annoys me when writing, but it’s a solid deal-breaker when drawing, so I was skeptical.
The first thing I did when I received my Dime Novel was to open it at random pages and force the book to stay open – and it does! I had to initially bend the two sides of the book backward rather severely to get the page spreads to open flat, but this abuse did no damage to either the stitching or the binding. I can happily sketch across the gutter and write easily on both sides of the page. In addition, there’s no telltale shadow in the gutter when I scan a page spread.
Finally, the third unexpected feature in this edition is the page ruling – none! It’s a blank page! We haven’t seen a completely blank book since Sweet Tooth, my all-time favorite Field Notes for sketching (Arts & Sciences was blank on one side). Well, I shouldn’t say it’s completely blank – the pages are numbered with an overly large typeface and archaic period hearkening to the original inspiration. Given the controversy in the stationery community over Sweet Tooth’s blank page, I doubted that I would see one ever again, so you can imagine my delight. Although obviously I prefer blank pages for sketching, my large, “freeform” (a nice term for messy) writing doesn’t conform well to most rulings, so I also prefer blank for writing. Another win for me!
(If you prefer to write with the guidance of lines, use Ana’s guide sheets. They are happily being downloaded by the Field Nuts Facebook group as members receive their Dime Novels.)
(Editor’s Note: Because I love you and I love Field Notes, I made all new Dime Novel-sized guide sheets in a full range of lined, grid and — wait for it — DOT GRID! Option-click on the page so you can download the PDFs after you read Tina’s review.)
The innards paper choice for this edition is a new one: Strathmore Premium Wove 70-pound Natural White, which has a creamy color. I was thrilled to see a return to 70 pound, which was also used in Sweet Tooth, Workshop Companion, Shelterwood and America the Beautiful. The sizing, however, is slightly different on each type of 70-pound paper. In terms of how well a paper will stand up to various media and writing instruments, I’ve found that sizing is at least as important as weight (often more so).
I abused my first Dime Novel with as many examples as I could of materials on my desk and in my sketch bag. As expected, all dry media and typical writing instruments – pencil, ballpoint, rollerball, gel, colored pencil – fared very well with no bleeding.
The paper also held up beautifully to all my juicy brush pens with no bleed-through.
Even when I gave a swipe of water to a few water-soluble media, nothing bled through. The washed inks aren’t quite as rich as I like, but they are better than on most non-sketchbook papers. As expected, only the alcohol marker and Sharpie came through on the reverse.
Given the performance with all of those, I was disappointed that my Sailor fountain pen with its juicy fude nib feathered. Although it’s my favorite drawing pen, I don’t usually write with it, and it’s probably not a common choice for most Field Notes users. Still, I compared a writing sample on Dime Novel to a sample on Workshop Companion, which contains 70-pound French Kraft-Tone, using the same pen and ink, and Workshop Companion shows no feathering at all. (Despite my lack of affinity to Workshop’s theme, I do enjoy sketching on its paper. It’s the edition that gives me hope that Field Notes will one day return to that heavy sizing.) Finer nib fountain pens such as a Pilot Petit1 and Pilot Varsity showed no feathering, however.
Of course, I couldn’t resist throwing some watercolor at the Dime Novel, too. As expected, the sizing isn’t substantial enough to keep the pigments afloat, so the colors dried looking somewhat dull. However, the page didn’t buckle as badly from brush application as I had expected, and the paints didn’t bleed through. As a final abuse, I sprayed the page where I’d applied watercolor pencils. It buckled badly, and the pigment bled where I sprayed. Cotton, 140-pound cold press it is not.
Although I could probably get away with using all the media I tried except watercolors, I think my favorite sketching media on this Strathmore Premium Wove are graphite and colored pencil. While smooth to the touch, the surface has a light tooth that I find very pleasing with pencil – both for drawing and writing. I like a texture that grabs the media and shows through the graphite or pigment coverage with a bit of sparkle.
While Dime Novel is not a full-fledged sketchbook by any means, it is perhaps as close to one as any pocket notebook company has offered so far. The size is fully portable while giving just a bit more real estate for sketching, and the binding tolerates abuse when forced to open flat.
It’s an ideal cross-over book: Write or draw, as you please. In fact, I have big plans to use a Dime Novel as a travel journal. Although I generally keep my journals separate from my sketchbooks, traveling is the one time I like to both write and sketch in the same book. Dime Novel’s pages are heavy enough to support glued-in photos and ephemera, and the slender profile is a handy traveler that won’t weigh me down.
Field Notes has said that its quarterly limited editions are a way for the company to experiment with different themes, papers, printing methods and, more recently, form factors and binding styles. Even when I’m not particularly enamored with a new edition, I’m always excited by Field Notes’ willingness to try new things.
What a year it’s been so far in the stationery world! First, Baron Fig came out with its blank-page Clear Sky edition. Then Blackwing released Volume 73, Tahoe, with the soft core, which I adore drawing with. And now Field Notes offers Dime Novel. I declare 2017 to be The Year of the Sketcher.
Tina Koyama is an urban sketcher in Seattle. Her blog is Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, and you can follow her on Instagram as Miatagrrl.