Monday, September 28, 2009

The Fountain Pen

I met my very first ballpoint pen at age nine in 1945, and immediately felt repelled. The object has come to symbolize decay for me. In those days people thought the new instrument amazing and advanced:  “Imagine, you don’t have to fill it!” But its performance left much to be desired, especially the early incarnations. Their ink flowed unevenly and frequently left little blobs adhering to the letters at random points. At nine, yes, even in war-torn Europe, I already owned a fountain pen; it was my prized possession, more honored and valued even than my folding knife. — I have to laugh. I glanced at my desk just now and saw—I hadn’t consciously noticed until the last sentence triggered something—a three-bladed folding knife next to three pens on my desk—still. Nothing’s changed in six plus decades.

But actually much has changed. The ballpoint pen has become better and better and better—cheaper and cheaper and cheaper too. Roller-balls and all sorts of other “markers” (as in Hank Dooda, his mark) have displaced it. And real fountain pens have been transformed from utilitarian objects of everyday use into symbolic tokens or collectors’ items. To be sure, there is a hardcore out there tenaciously clinging to the fountain men—in numbers large enough to maintain a large industry—but in everyday use, and in a visit to Staples or Office Depot, you look in vain.

Now, mind you, I’ve never been a Mont Blanc fetishist or anything even approaching that. I’ve never owned one. I’ve used Sheaffers, Parkers, Watermans, and Pelicans all of my life (still do) and liked them all. My most used pen has always been the cheap Sheaffer cartridge variety, fine nib. These used to sell for less than $3 and came with three cartridges to get you started. Then, some years ago, Sheaffer stopped to sell such pens and with a flourish converted to the roller-balls. And those of us who used the pens were “rolled,” as it were.

The secret of the fountain pen is in its nib, two pieces of metal joining at its tip. Using such an extension, the hand, the brain, and finally the heart receive a kind of faint, heavenly feedback, especially if the paper is decent. And on the paper itself, the subtle shifts in motion of now the left and now the right side of the nib itself leave a visual impression much more pleasing than the drab ball or roller-ball leave behind. At one point many years ago I discovered calligraphy. I bought myself a set of Osmiroid pens but only really used the finest nib—and for writing ordinary things, like diaries. The tactile and visual pleasure of using such a pen is difficult to convey. It occurs to me, pondering this, that the fountain pen, in an odd sort of way, represents one of the interesting points of fusion between sensory and spiritual experience. Writing certainly belongs to the latter category. I owe the photo to Greg Minuskin’s site: a place pen-lovers ought to visit.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Yes. But is the ballpoint? Or the roller ball?


  1. Great picture!
    In Europe, it's still an achievement for school children to be allowed by their teachers to use fountain pens, at least at the elementary level. When they get to what we call "Collège" (meaning 6th -9th grades) some switch back to ballpoints. My two teenagers have repeatedly refused my advice that fountain pens are more handy for homework that one is meant to hand in because, in France, we have fountain pen ink "corrector pens" and so your final copy can be almost error free! Oh the joy when I discovered those correctors! Of course they only correct the schoolboy, blue ink not the adult noir which is permanent!

  2. Three cheers for the fountain pen!

    One observation... Perhaps part of the decline in use of these fine tools has something to do with the decine in actual writing... by hand. Most of those who still write a lot do so, these days, with the tap, tap, tap of the keys more than the sensual stroke of a pen, be it a responsive fountain pen or an efficient roller-ball.

    I turn now to my Itoya Blade fountain pen to fill in the end of today's calendar entry...

  3. Alas, I fear that my abominable handwriting would be an insult to fountain-pen fans everywhere, were I to take one in hand. It's probably best to leave my chicken scratches in the world of ball points, where in this crowd I can at least blame the pen.


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