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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015



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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

The Magic of Ink

I love fountain pens. I’m not one of those obsessed anachronisms who have 30 pens with 24carat gold nibs lined up in a rosewood box with a red velvet lining. (I’ve always been partial to blue velvet.) No, I have three fountain pens carelessly tossed into the drawer of my bedside table, unused, dried ink caked on the guts. As much as I love fountain pens, I haven’t used one in years.

I started using a fountain pen back in upper elementary school. My mother gave me hers with a bottle of ink that had a well on one side for filling the pen. With the lid securely on the ink, you tipped the bottle over then righted it. You removed the cover and the well would be filled with just enough ink to fill the pen without having to immerse the nib down into the bottle. My school desk had a hole in it designed to fit a bottle of ink. I’m sure that before someone came up with that bright idea school-room floors were a slippery mess of viscous black ink.

By the time I was in upper elementary, ballpoint pens had come into common use in the U.S. They were first manufactured in 1945 (I’m not going into the history of Lazlo Biro and prior patents, etc.) and by 1960 were pretty much ubiquitous. So my teachers weren’t all that happy about me using a fountain pen, but they hadn’t banned them. They marked my work as sloppy due to ink splotches and smears, and generally did what they could to get me to use a ballpoint. Eventually I did join the pocket-protector club, but the ballpoint pen did nothing to improve my handwriting.

When I was in high school, my fountain pen was what I used to write poetry, and cartridges of ink had replaced the old bottles with the well. You could get a cheap pen for a couple of dollars and use it until the nib split and the ink just kept flowing. There were even conversion kits to remove the fountain from traditional pens and replace it with a cartridge. By the late 70s, I had my first Waterman fountain pen with my name engraved on the side. I flew to my sister’s wedding in the 80s and nearly ruined my suit as the fountain pen leaked on the inside pocket due to the air pressure.

Those were the days.

I’ve always had a suspicion that there was something magic about writing with a fountain pen. I would refer to a bottle of ink as a “bottle of words.” If something I was writing was going well, I hated to run out of ink. It was the creative equivalent of changing dice in the middle of a great craps run. If a project was not going well, I could always change to a fresh ink cartridge that had different words in it. Some chemist in a lab somewhere was mixing up great black words in a comp0und of India ink and I was letting them flow out of my pen.

Now, I’ve succumbed to a pen that is not only a ballpoint, it is a “smart pen” that records everything I write and puts it on my computer. But I miss the flow of words from the fountain of ink. And I reserve for myself moments with a leather-bound journal and a fountain pen in which the act and accoutrements of writing are as important as what is written.