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The classic Moleskine diary gets a makeover

When it comes to the new year, change in some shape or form is always imminent. Like those five pounds you'll lose and regain, or that ambitious kitchen renovation. For me, 2005 is already laid out pretty clear -- and vertical.

And somehow, it just doesn't look right.

The problem started when I went with my sister to Laywine's stationery store in Toronto to pick up our new planners. Moleskine, the venerable brand that modestly touts itself as the notebook of such geniuses as Hemingway, can Gogh and Picasso, not to mention movie characters such as Amélie, is our pocket diary of choice.

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Paper snobs, we've long appreciated its plain, sturdy cover that can handle being roughed around, its thick pages that take the ink of even a difficult pen and, yes, the horizontal entry spaces for each day. Along with its perfectly palmable shape, about the size of a PDA -- which, incidentally, I resolved to use last year, but after two weeks of missed appointments, relegated to a box of dated electronics -- the elastic around the pages, and the handy back pocket, it was by all accounts the perfect planner.

The full impact on us of the words "new layout" on the packaging was not fully realized until my sister flipped one open.

The horizontal entries that we were so used to writing in had been replaced with a skinny columnar format. "What? Why? How? Who writes that tiny?"

Our shocked reaction was no surprise to the waiting store clerks. In fact, it seems that in matters of stationery, this is an old fight. As Peter Laywine, owner of Laywine's, put it, "It's either switch or bitch."

With store manager Joy Jones, he filled me in on the history of the latter. When Preference added a notes section to their diary page refills, people were traumatized. The brand reverted back to its original style. Then there's the Filofax fiasco. When the company switched to military time, word is the American market complained so much that Filofax decided to split the run, appeasing U.S. customers with the old 12-hour a.m./p.m. format and offering international standard time to everybody else.

As for Moleskine, whose dissemination of its history inside each notebook can either be seen as charming or haughty, the layout change has not gone unnoticed. The Moleskine demimonde on-line (yes, there is such a thing) is in a tizzy. "Why Oh Why Oh Why did they do a vertical format?" asks Armand, punctuating his anguish with not one, but 10 question marks.

Not everyone is unhappy with the new version. "Personally, I prefer the horizontal entries," admitted Kellie Hadjidimitriou, manager of Swipe Books in Toronto, where Moleskines sit in their own high-gloss white shelf. "But I've really only heard a few negative comments about it."

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The bigger news here, it seems, is one of two new notebooks added to Moleskine's existing range. The Storyboard Notebook, which has framed pages for drawing things, has been a hit with the advertising and design types that make up the customer base at Swipe (the reason the store hasn't tried carrying the new Music Notebook, which has composition lines).

"The new layout hasn't affected sales in any way," Hadjidimitriou said. People are still buying the various notebooks as gifts for children, parents and themselves simply because "everybody loves a Moleskine."

With resignation, I bought the pocket weekly diary.

This week, for the first time, I held up my pen, ready to squeeze my life into the strange, tall vertical columns.

While it is a shame to mess with tradition (though truth be told, the weekly diary itself was introduced only in the past couple of years), aside from the vertical columns, it is still the same notebook. And it does come with a removable address book this time.

My sister, however, decided to buy a style with horizontal entries -- Crane's pocket journal.

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Though comparable in size, with the bonus of colour maps of several international cities (including Toronto and Montreal), she still misses the elastic and pocket of a Moleskine and said as much in an e-mail message to the company.

"The funny thing is, time is a fluid concept. But people want it to look like this," Jones explained, outlining a rectangle in the air with her hands. I can only nod and agree.

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