The mysteries of notebook sizing - revealed!

by Scribble Monboddo

In Nero's secret underworld bunker, we're surrounded by so many different types and sizes of paper that it can be a bit of a whirlwind. A gentle, non-destructive whirlwind, admittedly, but - well, you get the picture. So just for you, lucky customer, we shall admit you to the arcane knowledge that is notebook sizing. There's more to it than meets the eye...

Now of course, there's history, and plenty of it. Before international standardisation, every country had its own system for paper sizes, much like other weights and measures. These were often pretty idiosyncratic; France, for instance, had paper sizes called Jesus and, wait for it, Raisin! Blighty had different systems for loose writing paper and paper for binding into books, so it gets quite confusing, but generally speaking the one size you'll have heard of is foolscap, the paper size used in offices throughout the Empire before metrication. It is just about big enough to make a paper hat from, but that's not how it got its name; one manufacturer traditionally distinguished its product with a watermark which depicted a jester's belled cap, and the label stuck. For book making, one takes a very large piece of paper and folds it once for books of plays (the famous First Folio), again to make a sheet with four divisions, the quarto (ideal for novels), and yet again into eight pages for an octavio pocket book. If that sounds like it makes sense, don't go getting too confident, because there are also different sizes for postal purposes; we do occasionally stock a post quarto notebook, or even a half post quarto - also known as a 'traveller's notebook'. 

The US still loiters in obscurity when it comes to paper sizes, with 'Letter' and 'Legal' the most common, but these have little to do with notebooks so we can diplomatically move on.

After that giddy tour of the past, you might be ready to ditch the inch in favour of sizing which everyone can understand. That's an easier desire to satisfy thanks to ISO 216, the international standard developed from measures announced in 1922 by the Deutsches Institut für Normung, which gives us the collective name many people also use, DIN sizing. A4, as any foolscap knows, is 210 by 297 in portrait format, but the magic of the concept is the aspect ratio; essentially, in any size the short side is '1' and the long side is the square root of 2. Open an A4 notebook and lay it flat, and you have a sheet of A3. Fold it in half, and you have A5 - one of the most popular sizes for notebooks, for good reason. Fold it again and you get A6, which is just about small enough for those with generously-cut pockets. Simple, eh?

But hold on, because there are standards beyond 'A'. The B series follows the same aspect ratio but is just a fraction larger, which is handy for printers who wish to trim the sides. It's also useful for anyone who finds A4 too large and A5 just a bit too small, which is quite a widespread preference actually - if that's you, try a B5 notebook and you might just fall in love.

Finally, there's another outlier which has become a de facto standard, the pocket notebook size. This really does fit into most pockets, as well as the pocket notebook holders becoming increasingly popular, and we stock a wide range of them. The actual size is 90 by 140 millimetres, although some US producers still prefer to nod back to the kings they fought so hard to free themselves from, and define it as three and half inches by five and half inches. It's a very useful format, and can be recommended for almost anyone - just don't confuse it with the (larger) A6.

Of course, if you'd like to try some different sizes in curiously random fashion you could do a lot worse than to invest in one of our subscriptions - like speed-dating for writing surfaces. Do you come here often?