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On the Blessed Fountain Pen

and it's many benefits

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 23, 2009.

Recently, I saw someone use a fountain pen in public. She had the fine tip, and although I can’t read well upside down, it was a good looking script, with no cramped letters and only a dot and not a circle above the j’s and i’s. Still, if her daughter is listening, your mother is wrong and you should leave that philanderer. Just saying.

Since this was a week ago, I’d forgotten about that otherwise definitively unimportant event except that The Guardian newspaper’s website had an article by one of my favorite writers, Umberto Eco, discussing the lost art of handwriting. He says, correctly, that as the ball point and then the key boards took over, writing sped up, and nobody practiced legible swirls and definitive punctuation and was careful not to smear or, worse, spill the ink well. That was the upside. Now for the down.

I grew up with fountain pens, especially those with medium nibs, as they were a pleasure to write with if kept clean. You had to write somewhat slower, but that, in reality, meant you had time to write better and, for that matter, think ahead. Love letters – any letters – benefited from that, and anyone who has sent an email or Twitter or Instant Message that felt so good at the time and so really bad later – which I believe is all of us, by which I mean myself - can appreciate that characteristic. It focused the mind upon the task at hand. I only use my fountain pens now to write Christmas cards, itself an ecological scream of horror from the past. And a fair number get smeared, and sometimes left that way and sometimes duplicated.

My parents and family had terrific handwriting, and when I started digitalizing my past I couldn’t bring myself to scan in their letters and toss them, and so I still have a file cabinet of family missives which someday might be of interest to relations. One of the saddest things about my father we found after his passing were the handwritten notes he left about, organizing his world. Brought up with coal furnaces in New England, he still kept a diary by the furnace of his supposed maintenance, a role from his youth and fairly pointless with their modern and efficient oil burner. The man’s deterioration is clearly seen in the dates and initials he left by them. The beginning of his last year he signed off as briskly as he had fifty years previous on my report cards. Weeks later, his last were unreadable and fell away at the end, partially because he’d had to put his wife and our mother in a rest home for Alzheimer’s patients, partially because his constitution gave out not long after. That little card of dates and initials metaphored his brief life alone, a pointless procedure to stay busy. But, it would be meaningless if it were just a printed out on a spreadsheet, silent as machines are to the pain and loneliness at the keyboard.

Eco, in his Guardian article, goes on to lambaste the lack of handwriting skills as well as the lack of appreciation which such skill bequeaths. He’s complaining about Italian kids, but it’s the same here. In the old days, early school made kids practice their letters and printing and, later, cursive writing. It’s an athletic event, and teaches eye-hand coordination, which by itself is important. Yet, along with obesity, today we have graduates from supposedly good high schools who can do no math without a calculator and cannot write without a keyboard, or at all. They can sort of print in block letters, which is significantly slower than cursive, tiring, and annoying when an adult’s written record resembles that of the slow children of my youth. Legible cursive writing looks better on job application forms as well, and can suggest a better education than those with block letters.

Not only is handwriting not taught anymore, neither is learning how to type correctly mandated. That’s ironic, given our age of the computer damned near requires it. But, we make sure the young can utilize – and purchase, and become even more dependent upon - the ever more efficient technologies of communication: texting with the thumbs, video conferencing with the cell phone, both while driving – and giving them so little to say or talk about since they no longer read books, no longer read newspapers, no longer have the tools to think. After all, writing is just thought plus a motor skill. If they cannot write or coherently speak an intelligent or interesting sentence, chances are they don’t think it, either.