Deciphering My Bullet Journal—An Analog System for the Digital World

Deciphering My Bullet Journal: An Analog System for the Digital World

When we think of books we think of fiction novels that provide us readers with a form of escapism. The real word our physical bodies are in, is overruled by our mind embarking into a euphoric world that siezes to exist outside of our reading. But perhaps this cause and effect of the novel is due to its format more than its context.

As we leared about the different formats of a book in terms of its physicality throughout the courses readings for this lab, Jane Austen is one of the many exemplars that suggest that the format of a book has a direct relationship between its content and its cultural meanings.

In her letter to her “dear Cassandra” written in February 1813, she expresses some sour emotions towards the collection of books as a tool to portray social status:

Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the breakfast parlour there must be acquianted with everything in the world. I detest a quarto. Capt. Pasley’s book is too good for their society. They will not understand a man who condenses his thoughts into an octavo…” (Austen, 1813).

Two centuries later, the relationship between the content and cultural meaning of a textual artifact remains important. The textual artifact that will be analyzed for this purpose of this lab is one that is near and dear to my own heart:

##My Bullet Journal.


Example of bullet journal. Not my bullet journal specifically.

The bullet journal, in its definition is “a customizable and forgiving organization system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above” (

However because of the endless flexibility when it comes to designing and formatting your bullet journal, the journal’s purpose differs from user to user.

My Own Purpose

My own bullet journal is small enough to carry around everywhere I go, in every backpack or purse I own, but large enough to contain my endless-seeming to-do lists and stress-relieving sketches of whatever random object seems to be in front of me at the time. While my journal contains monthly schedules and weekly reminders, it also contains:

  • Semester schedules
  • Class notes
  • Monthly budgeting
  • Travel ideas
  • Trip itineraries
  • Christmas wish lists
  • Project ideas
  • Floral and vineyard-like doodles
  • Notes on the types of wine I like
  • Restaurants I must try
  • Phrases I overhear from strangers that I find intriguing

That being said, while the true definition of each and every bullet journal is so customizable, all bullet journals represent a new kind of system in our modern culture –

An Analog Format Against a Digital Culture

Just like my learning experience during this lab, I came to realize the format of my bullet journal. While I am not sure if all bullet journals are produced in the same format, I started counting sets of pages just like I did with N. Tates book of Poems from 1692. Similar to his book, the sets of pages in my bullet journal evidently ended as per the stitching to the journal’s bind. I counted eight pages in one set, which like Tates book, is known as a quarto.

Much like Tates’ book, the use of a quarto is fairly simple because of its convenient size that can be comfortably carried every where. While readers of the 17th century were reading poems quite frequently, bullet journal users are writing and sketching in their journals quite frequently as well. Although both texts are different in content, the social effect of their physical size is quite similar: a tool that can be used to calm our thoughts formed by our chaotic reality.

However when we compare the printing process of both Tate’s book of poems and my bullet journal, there are differences between both when it comes to the purpose of their printing.

It is important to note that the typical format of a bullet journal (when initially purchased) is a hard cover quarto with blank pages or grid-dot pages, however mine consists of blank pages. The hard cover is simple, plain and black.

The name bullet journal was actually derived from the original grid-dot pages in which users were meant to organize their bullet journal ideas neatly by simply “connecting the dots”.

Throughout the process of deciphering Tate’s physical book, specifically when trying to identify its specific format, there was an obvious signature pattern that helped distinguish the set of printed pages. For every set of 8 pages (one printing sheet folded 4 four times to create 8 faces), were numerical patterns that for each set of 8 pages was signed A1 through to A8 and then followed by B1 through to B8.

Given the fact that my bullet journal in its raw form is made up of blank pages, its pages are not signed with a numerical pattern. The difference between the two texts, represent two kinds of relationships between the author and the printing process.

For Tate, there was a direct relationship between the content of his poetic text and how his text was printed. The signature too implies that as an author, Tate was involved (in one way or another) in the process of metal printing. In this regard, we can conclude that this close relationship to printing books into ones own desired format portrays a culture that is not only interested and invested in the process of printing but one that perceives printing as an “exclusive” process that labels social rank.

My bullet journal on the other hand, seizes to hold any kind of relationship between its content and the process of printing. The content of my bullet journal was produced after the printing was completed. However if we look at the process of printing as just my own hand picking up a pencil or watercolor pen to produce checklists or designs, than perhaps this form of manual/customizable printing is one thats creates a more intimate relationship with the content of my bullet journal.

Just like Charles Chesnutt portrays the men of the Bodleian Club in his short story, Baxters Procrustes, Tate seems to have been so invested in the physical publishing of his quarto because of the cultural book standards “in which emphasis should be laid upon the qualities that make a book valuable in the eyes of the collectors” (Chesnutt, 1904). Thus while the poems in Tates’ quarto had the ability to be carried around everywhere, perhaps it was only carried as a status symbol rather than a means of escapism and its literature appreciation.

Today, with countless social media platforms in which online personas are created (whether true or fake), users tend to only have control on the text of their profile. The design and layout of their profile is typically pre-set and beyond the users control. The culture of our digital world seems to be a culture that conforms to preset structures of its textual artifacts. The bullet journal is a tool that opposes this cultural trend in a way where the physical foundational structure of the text is completely free and up to the “bulleter”. Different from Tates’ quarto, the bullet journal represents a culture that wants to contravene against a system of thinking and organizing that has been made analytical and formal. This modern and innovative quarto represents a culture that wants to reposition itself into a system that thinks and organizes their lives as they choose to, with a unique personalization and that gives the every-day text a more personal meaning and effective outcome.

Evolution of the Bullet Journal

The various editions of Morse’s Geography deciphered during this lab, depicted editions whose formats were quite similar but as the years went on, there were more additions to the text. As an example the 1813 edition did not include a fold-up map of the world while the 1816 edition did. As a reference guide to teach American students about geography, this additional component of the text portrays a culture that is interested in visual learning rather than memorizing each country of each continent.

As the bullet journal itself does not go through the standard editions of book we are familiar with, as more and more users begin to own and use a bullet journal, there are increasingly new design, planning and/or organizing ideas being created. The “staples” of the bullet journal as mentioned include monthly calendars and weekly to-do lists but throughout their existence bulleters have drawn out their favorite music playlists, noted down their baking recipes, sketched a collage of things that make them happy, and even logged their feelings with their own mood tracker. As these new bullet journaling ideas arise, the evolution of a bullet journal contents portrays a society that is perhaps overwhelmed by todays technology, the countless apps and tracking systems. These ideas portray a modern culture that perhaps wants to be more traditional and have everything on hand, in one place.

Deciphering these physical books both from the mid-nineteenth century and today has truly expanded my understanding of a book’s physical significance. Particularly, this lab has demonstrated the direct relationships between these textual artifacts and the culture in which its both printed and used. In fact it seems quite ironic to me that some of us in this modern culture may want to resort to traditional ways of writing in books even though we have been lucky with technology that 19th century culture did not even imagine could exist. Austen mocks the quarto as a book women use to pretend they know everything about the world, but I wonder whether or not she would have the same feelings about a quarto now, seeing how intimate and rich in thought the bullet journal is.