In a recent post on his blog my friend Brian reminded me of my own interest in fountain pens and got me thinking about the tools we use to communicate in writing. Fountain pens are no longer the minor fad they were ten years or so ago, but pen collecting has its share of avid devotees. There are sites offering antique and collectible pens (“writing instruments,” if you must), pen repair and restoration, and selling high end pens that are more jewelry, fashion accessories, status symbols, even works of art than practical writing tools. There are also those who that writing with a fountain pen is essential to the future of Western civilization. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
My own small collection pens (numbering about a dozen) is made up mostly of new, relatively inexpensive pens, all of which I use. There are a few antiques, mostly undistinguished (or unidentifiable) makes, but they are interesting for their materials and colors as well as being artifacts of life seventy or eighty years ago. The best “find” in my little collection is a 1930s Sheaffer Balance, a lever-fill model in need of reconditioning before it can actually be used.
“Why fountain pens?” I was once asked by a co-worker. Good question. Fountain pens are often fussy, finicky things, especially if you are committed to refilling them from a bottle. I’m not that hardcore; most of the time I use cartridges. But back to the question. I started using fountain pens regularly about twelve years ago, but it seems I’ve always had one or two since I was a kid, some thirty-mumblemumble years ago.
Writing with a fountain pen started as an exercise in nostalgia, oddly enough, for a period in history that I am not old enough to have experienced first hand. But I also do a lot of writing in my work, mostly taking notes at meetings or writing out notes for presenting material at meetings, and I found that I enjoyed the mechanics of writing with a fountain pen. It also got me to start keeping a journal about ten years ago, in which I write only with a fountain pen or, for an even more primitive experience, a dip (or steel) pen. Maybe it had to do with all the Jane Austen movies that were coming out and all the Charles Dickens I was reading at the time.
I like writing with a fountain pen because I slow down and pay a little more attention to what I’m writing. With my journal, writing takes on a meditative quality, to the point where what I’m writing doesn’t even really matter. And using a fountain pen adds to that because it, too, requires more attention. Sometimes my handwriting even ends up being more legible. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of keyboards for our electronic text communication and document creation, there still seems to be a lot of effort going into making computers mimic notepads that we write on, so I don’t think handwriting will go away completely as a necessary skill anytime soon.
For those of you who still insist on using sticks and clay tablets, though, I think you’ll have to wait a little longer for a cuneiform recognition system.