There are few more exquisite joys than that of a fine nib gliding across smooth paper. There are also increasingly few so antiquated, and thus ridiculous. The keyboard of the modern word processor (so cold and clinical a phrase) lay out our words with misleading typographical elegance and perfect spelling. No longer need we be hopeful that others can decipher our handwriting, nor feel embarrassment that it needs to be deciphered. I am an excellent typist myself and would be lost without the ease and convenience of my computer in shaping the end result. However, I have found that pen and notebook are the fittest and, for me, only way to start putting thoughts in order.
I say this not as some antiquarian with a love for the past as past only and no thought to utility, but as a practicing writer who has tried every helpful hint for better prose and found that sometimes the old-fashioned things are truly best. There are many scientific studies to support the efficacy of writing longhand but I find the practice of little need for justification. I am fully convinced that, once a writer has tried their hand with a good fountain pen for a few hours, the sheer kinetic pleasure it engenders sells itself.
Regardless of my applause, I was at one time an apostate of the pen. As a boy, I asked of my mother and received one. A cheap plastic thing, I now forget the brand but most likely a Sheaffer which could only be filled via cartridges. I employed it throughout the whole of my high school career and for some years after until it at last wore out from constant use. I buried the remains and forgot. Leap forward some years and I am once again writing longhand in notebooks out of necessity. I tried every type of pen that promised some new innovation in comfort, always dissatisfied and at a loss to know why. It was not until some almost psychic disturbance stirred my memory that I recalled my long forgotten friend. At that instant I was possessed, and proceeded to acquire as many pens as I could safely afford. This is simply history and only explains from whence I’ve come, it does not describe me now nor why I persist in this fetish, if so it may be called.
In time, my relationship with my chosen writing instrument has evolved from mere enthusiasm to something more. It has occurred to me more than once that for most of human history the majority of our literature was the product of pen in hand. At the end of antiquity, when his own city was under siege, St. Augustine was writing down his City of God. A massive book, it causes one to question how large books were written at all before the aid of modern technology, or that the toil was not used more often as an excuse to write far fewer of them until the modern age. Yet, there it stands on the shelf as a monument to pen and ink and very human thought, despite its message.
By the middle of that period now dubbed the Enlightenment, the message had changed but the method by which it was conveyed had not. Edward Gibbon, the greatest historian in our language, was no uncritical reader of the church fathers and yet, just like the fathers of the church, scribbled out the six volumes (at over a million and a half words) of his Decline and Fall with the identical implement the patriarchs had used to compose their sermons — -a quill.
There is a beautiful sense of continuity in this, for the fountain pen is a direct descendant of that miraculous tool the quill. Although the nib is now of metal instead of cartilage, and the ink is carried along in its vitals like some type of venomous serpent or placid dromedary, depending upon the writer’s intent and disposition, it has, all the contentions of the snob aside, remained virtually the same. For after all it is a rather simple device, and it is in that very simplicity that resides its elegance. With very few moving parts, and only gravity to assist the flow of ink by capillary action to the page, there is nothing to come between the writer and the word and nothing more complicated than the fitfulness of thought to slow one’s progress. It is an eternal admonishment to humility in the writer, that great ideas and great beauty have come from such a humble tool.
In an age which values style over substance and believes that if a technology is not constantly changing it must be dead, it is comforting to use something which exhibits both and is no longer in need of change having already attained perfection. For, to those who discern such things, there has been no improvement upon this very basic technology since the nineteen-fifties.
In my experience, the butter-like feel of a nib melting into the page on a ribbon of liquid ink has never been replicated, not even by the aptly titled gel pen. And yet, it is exactly this characteristic that all modern pen makers have sought to replicate. If they have failed it has often been for the sake of utility and expense, but a fountain pen is for the serious writer only. If ink-stained fingers are the least of what we must endure it is as nothing beside the luxurious sensation of well-wrought words conveyed with an instrument that gives them the ultimate respect.
As an implement, the fountain pen is a tool of enduring quality, something that one may use for a lifetime. But as an object it is even more, for the human mind the fountain pen has become every bit a symbol of thought and the infinite possibilities of the human imagination as it is a tool. Like a magic wand of potential, it is a signal of intent, a possibility that what is set down on ephemeral paper may live for a thousand years or but a day; it is a goad to stay the course of one’s vocation and keep our duty to the truth, and an act of reverence to those who came before and sought to leave their mark, as well as an artist’s brush to remind us we practice a craft as much as a trade.
Finally, lest anyone think I am being overly sentimental, if we believe our thought’s hold any dignity at all should we not, at the very least, consider the instrument with which we record them? If the reader can agree with only that much, then this little encomium to my humble calamus can never shame me for to write by hand out of reverence to the word is a quality, and a state of mind, the cynical modern age will never quite dispel.