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A Love/Hate Relationship

Writings Index  ]

This essay was written in July 2006. Were I to rewrite it today, the specific pens would have changed, but the philosophy expressed remains as true today as it was then.

Recently, I read the following posting on a bulletin board that I frequent:

“My [fountain pen] arrived home from its second trip to [the factory] this week, and is doing better. No more inky finger, and though it still skips occasionally, it is MUCH better than when it went out there.

“So I wrote with it a while this evening, and then picked up my ‘main pen,’ my [other fountain pen], and WOW! So smooooooth, such nice flow, such a nice size and weight…

“So why do I have this fascination with the [first pen], and such a strong desire to have it just right?

“This pen stuff must do funny things to one’s brain.”

My first reaction upon reading the posting was, “Of course it does.” Carrying on a love affair with a fountain pen, and that’s what we’re really talking about here, is unreasonable from the outset. It’s a writing instrument, for goodness’ sake, a stupid marking stick! And marking sticks are so ubiquitous that there’s hardly a need to seek out a specific one — or, when you find it, to spend ridiculous sums of money to obtain it and then, compounding your lack of good sense, hang onto it when, rather than requiting your affection, it spits ink at you, or refuses to write at all, or tears holes in your paper. It’s odd, though, isn’t it, how a particular pen can attract you irresistibly even when it’s a mediocre performer, like the one described in this board posting, or repel you altogether despite an ability to exhibit sterling performance under any and all conditions. What is it that impels us to respond so utterly illogically to fountain pens?

Having posed the question at the end of the preceding paragraph, I must now admit that I’m hardly immune to the reaction in question. I’m involved in a serious relationship, a long-term love affair with a fountain pen, a 1933 Marine Green Sheaffer’s Lifetime full-length standard-girth model Balance with a buttery two-tone medium nib. I hope the pen doesn’t read this, however, because I’d prefer that it not discover just how disgustingly fickle I am about it; for, truth be told, I’m involved in more than twenty such relationships. Today I’m enamored of a gold striated 1941 Sheaffer’s Balance with a military clip and its own smooth two-tone medium nib. Yesterday my paramour was a 1937 burgundy Parker Vacumatic Standard with yet another great smooth nib. Tomorrow, qui sait ? It’s abundantly clear that I cannot, without flaunting a banner of hypocrisy, simply dismiss the whole fountain-pen thing as idiocy. It may be the product of addled brains, or it may even be a cause thereof, but I refuse to name myself idiot, so I must look further. What, exactly, is going on here?

What’s going on here, at least if you can draw any conclusions from the list of pens in the preceding paragraph, is that we like fountain pens because they’re beautiful. And it is unarguably true that many of them are works of great aesthetic appeal — in some cases, of genius. But many of the most beautiful pens are made in limited editions. And the sad fact is that a remarkably high percentage of limited-edition pens, and in fact not a few high-priced “production” pens as well, don’t write very well — and some of them, it seems, aren’t amenable to being adjusted to do so. As it happens, all of my pens write well; the cornerstone of my collection philosophy is that a pen that I can’t write with, pleasurably, is a pen that you won’t find in my collection. This rule means, with one exception, that I don’t buy limited-edition pens. The sole exception to my rule is a 1998 Bexley Fifth Anniversary, a large, hefty pen made of black chased hard rubber and modeled on the Parker Jack-Knife pens of eighty-odd years ago. That pen wrote moderately well when I bought it, but its present exemplary writing characteristics are the product of a genius who doesn’t work for Bexley, one John Mottishaw by name, and its acquisition of those characteristics came at no mean cost. There is, therefore, something to ponder in the case of a pen that looks good but doesn’t write well; after all, what good is a writing instrument if you can’t write with it?

I’ve wondered on occasion whether the “love it even though it’s terrible” reaction might be related to the way we marry in hopes of changing our new spouse. You know the scenario, I’m sure: starry-eyed young Miss Ingenue falls head over heels in love with the man of her dreams, the equally green Mr. Wright, marries him, and sets out thereupon to reform his habit of pitching dirty laundry heedlessly in all directions the way a dog shakes off water. Or Mr. Singleton (finally recovered from a traumatic divorce) weds Mrs. Bridgewater (an escapee, like himself, from a regrettable trip to the altar) and forthwith determines that she must cease her practice of chatting daily via telephone with her mother in Kalamazoo. A speculative nature leads me to propose that the choice to invest more time and effort into a pen that has proven itself unsatisfactory may well be an attempt to reform that incorrigible pen’s nature just as we would reform the nature of a spouse. After all, the pen was so gorgeous in the store or at the pen show that we fell instantly in love with it. Now, even after having discovered once again that beauty is not infrequently only skin deep and that the new Pen of Bright Colors throws its dirty laundry on our best chintz bedspread, we find ourselves unable to relinquish the adoration that moved us to purchase it.

Mistake me not, however. Pens are not people, and what is inappropriate for a spouse may be perfectly proper for a pen. Once the decision has been made that a recalcitrant pen is worth rehabilitating, only an unreasonable individual would deny that, as does the repair of any other mechanical device, fixing a pen requires the application of time or money, or both. I was recently given the opportunity to make repairs to a vintage sterling-overlay Eclipse with a flexible Waterman’s Ideal nib that a friend had purchased and found severely wanting. The light in the purchaser’s eye when the pen began performing flawlessly was a pleasure to behold; both he and I knew that his decision to buy the pen had been vindicated, that his new pen would indeed become one of his most cherished possessions. But the riddle remains: what had impelled him to invest a considerable sum into purchasing, and a lesser additional sum into repairing, a small black-and-silver marking stick? And, to carry the inquiry one step further, what would he have done had the repairs not been so easily accomplished and so successful?

It has been said innumerable times that beauty is only skin deep. Do we love pens, then, because they are inherently lovely, flowing of line and arrayed in such glittering splendor as to shame Solomon in all his glory? The platitude begs the question: why do we find ourselves attracted to a pen when, speaking candidly, we admit that it isn’t all that beautiful? The “love it even though it’s terrible” situation is partly what I’m looking at here, but it’s clearly not a complete answer. I have two Esterbrook pens in my harem pen case, a red 1930s “Dollar Pen” and a blue 1949 Model J. I make no bones about acknowledging that these pens, while not ugly, aren’t nearly so attractive as most of the others in the case. Nor, for that matter, do they write so well as all but one or two of their casemates. (Permit me to ignore, for the moment, the dictionary definition of casemate.) There is something else about Esties. For myself, I can explain the attraction. Esties are proof that a pen need not be expensive to do its job well. In an era when Sheaffer and Parker were selling pens at prices ranging upward from $2.75, you could go into the corner drugstore and walk out with an Esterbrook — in your choice of color, with the nib style of your choice — in exchange for a single dollar bill. You could also buy any of several brands of lesser pens, but the key to my interest in Esterbrook is that word, “lesser.” Esties are not lesser pens. They are of very high quality, and they remain a true bargain even at the prices one pays for them today. An Esterbrook Model J doesn’t have to give anything away to a Cross Radiance, a Waterman Phileas, or any other pen in the same price range. And it has the added charm of being close to, or even beyond, its 50th birthday. I suppose, upon consideration, that Esties are indeed beautiful, precisely because they are what they are: practical and durable, neither pretentious nor dowdy.

Another facet of the problem relates to pens that look absolutely hideous to some people but somehow find a warm spot in the hearts of others. The best example I can conjure to illuminate this conundrum is the rOtring Core, an oddly shaped, modishly colored pen that looks like a modern athletic shoe. This resemblance isn’t coincidental, by the way; the Core’s looks were deliberately modeled on those of the footwear. But think for a moment. There’s no real advantage, in terms of usability or performance, to the multihued, knobby, glittery appearance of athletic shoes. They would perform just as well if they were less garish in appearance. But they sell, and in large part it’s their appearance that drives their popularity. It turns out that the rOtring Core, for all its unorthodox appearance, is a great performer. Most of the Core owners I know are enthusiastic, many of them wildly so, about it. Some don’t care about the pen’s appearance, while others seem almost to revel in it. But I consider the pen an abomination despite any possible redeeming features it may possess. It’s ugly, ugly, ugly, and in contradistinction to beauty’s being only skin deep, ugly goes all the way to the bone. No matter how good the pen may be, its appearance is a totally effective deterrent to the possibility of my purchasing it.

Right in the middle is the pen that is beautiful to behold, gifted with a symmetrical and pleasing shape, wonderfully artistic colors, and — usually — impeccable behavior. One such is the modern Parker Duofold. I know an individual who is at a loss to explain his disdain for his Duofold. He admits that it’s good looking. He admits that it writes well. And he admits that he hates it. Allow me to proffer an hypothesis or two: the pen doesn’t fit his hand. It may be the same size as other pens that he likes, but the weight may be subtly wrong. Or the pen might be just the tiniest bit too small in diameter despite having the perfect weight. Or too large. Or the nib might be polished just so as to force him to tilt the pen at an angle sufficient to outrage his muscles. Or he may, without even realizing it, harbor a subconscious aversion to the pen’s color. The point here is that there may be any number of factors, subtle or obvious, that drive this man to despise one of the best pens of the modern era.

I’ve now spent a ridiculously long time waxing philosophical, posing questions and musing on possible answers — which invariably raise further questions — without putting forth even one securely tenable explanation for the fascination of fountain pens. Maybe there is no explanation. Maybe we love fountain pens simply and solely because we are human.

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