The passion for pens in a digital age. For the Boston Globe.
Pentel? Don’t talk to me about Pentel. The skinny little hypodermic-needle tip of the EnerGel fills me with the urge to bear down hard and snap it off. Also out of the question: Pilot’s BPS Fine. Sure, it’s got great balance, but its tip breaks off if I worry it with my thumb. I know what you’re thinking: “Ah, but what about the Uniball Gel?” Alas, it’s too heavy, and it won’t fit behind my ear.
OK, so I’m a little obsessive about my pens — I have to be. How else am I supposed to sort through today’s dizzying array of models? Buying a pen was once a simple matter: Was it going to be a 12-pack of PaperMates or Bics? These days, however, I’m forced to weigh esoteric criteria — viscosity, writeout — and choose from a gamut of features: antibacterial grip protection, parabolic ink windows, “Jet Stream.”
Then there are the aesthetic flourishes. The two-tone cap of Bic’s Z4 looks like something out of the Jetsons; the Pilot G-2 evokes the submarine from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Contemporary pen designers, perhaps inspired by the success of Todd Oldham and Martha Stewart, have embraced the ethos of cutting-edge style at an everyday price. Today’s pen is no humble ink stick. It’s a work of art.
Not bad for an item that once seemed destined to become a casualty of the digital age. With all the new ways to enter data, from PDA styluses to Blackberry keypads, the paperless office appeared, for a while, like the only logical result. (And if you don’t have paper, who needs a pen?) Journalists, who you’d think would be pen partisans, love to posit the End of the Pen. As recently as last year, London’s Guardian newspaper bemoaned “The Death of Handwriting,” even predicting that signatures would become obsolete.
But such predictions notwithstanding, the humble pen is by all measures thriving today-and thanks, in no small part, to the very technology that was supposed to make it obsolete. The Internet has turned out to be a formidable pro-pen force. Pen fanciers meet online to gab about their latest acquisitions, complain about their pet peeves, and generally celebrate this decidedly low-tech utensil.
Pen connoisseurs have, of course, been around for a long time, but the Internet has invigorated the hobby. Handwriting expert Kate Gladstone, for example, collaborated on the design of a collectible fountain pen with a community of people scattered across the US and Europe. They communicate using Yahoo groups.
Die-hard pen hobbyists collect pens that can be valued in the thousands of dollars. The Pierrot by David Oscarson, for example, features five layers of multicolored enamel and retails for as much as $4,900. High-end collectors tend to see pens as a way of encouraging thoughtfulness. “Devoted users of fountain pens say, `It makes me slow down, it makes me think about what I’m putting on the page,”‘ says Marie Picon, editor of the collector’s magazine Pen World.
But the growing enthusiasm for pens is hardly the sole province of the refined collector. Consider, for instance, the minicult surrounding the low-tech note-taking system known as the Hipster PDA. The Hipster PDA is actually a stack of notecards held together with a binder clip, but its simplicity has won it fans, including many among the digerati. And when your on-the-go note-taking is strictly analog, it’s crucial to get the right pen.
The right pen, for many Hipsters, is the Fisher Space Pen. Known to Seinfeld fans as the “astronaut pen,” the Fisher really does write at any angle, and in any weather. One Fisher fan raved online that he was able to write through a pat of butter. Another reported that he’d “modded” — that is, modified — his wallet to hold his pen. (He sewed a loop of elastic on one side.)
“As much as geeks have the reputation for being these robot-like figures, I think a lot of geeks have a real design sense,” says Merlin Mann, who touts the Hipster PDA on his website, 43folders.com. “It’s design with practicality,” Mann, a Fisher aficionado, says of the pen. “It’s this smooth little thing that fits in your pocket, and if you’re riding on public transit, you can write against the wall.”
While the Fisher may be the pen of choice for the notecard crowd, though, it’s not elegant enough for others. Devotees of the Italian-made Moleskine notebooks — currently the journal of choice for the literary set — tend to do less writing at odd angles. They just want a smooth line. One blogger recently offered this play-by-play of his search for the perfect Moleskine pen: “Use Waterman pens with Pilot G-2 ink,” he recommends. “I performed some experiments and while I [will] spare you the details, I will say that G-2 ink on a Moleskine page will last as long as the page holds together.”
I’m not sure why he feels the need to put Pilot G-2 ink cartridges into Waterman pens. I’ve been using blue G-2s lately, and they’re terrific just the way they are.
-Etelka Lehoczky, 2006