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June 2011: Gizmodo Takes Fountain Pen to Throwdown with NY Times

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Just to get it out of the way, here’s what I think of New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s Tweet and the May 18 editorial essay “The Twitter Trap” that followed: Brilliant.

In the process of castigating the media of Twitter and Facebook, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller attracted epic traffic and attention overnight that his newspaper couldn’t buy over the last decade. Extra Fine Points

Not so much because I agree with what he said — I don’t, for the most part — but because of the P.T. Barnum-scale blowback he created out there on the Interwebs. Well done. In the process of castigating the media of Twitter and Facebook, the editor attracted epic traffic and attention overnight that his newspaper couldn’t buy over the last decade.

What interested me about the whole thing was technology journalist and Gizmodo blogger Mathew Honan’s riposte, New York Times Editor Is a Horrible Troll Who Doesn’t Understand the Modern World.” Not because it was a passionate, f-bomb laden analysis of modern times or that I agree with his main arguments — I do, for the most part — but because he made his point with a fountain pen and notecards.

Image Copyright 2011 Mathew Honan, used with permission

Image Copyright 2011 Mathew Honan, used with permission

Both in the picture and the last paragraph text, he used his Montblanc and custom letterpress (!) note cards to cement his diatribe to Keller. Was he putting fountain pens and handwriting into the same old bucket of curmudgeonly crust as he was Keller? I had to know. I dropped Honan an email immediately after reading his piece. He was kind enough to reply.

It turns out that, yes, the pen is his. A wedding gift from his mother.

“I used a horrible little ball-point Bic to write that [note], but wanted to use a pretty pen for the picture,” he writes. “I thought my fountain pen fit that bill. So, my foremost concern was that it look nice for photography. But beyond that, because fountain pens are an old-style pen, it seemed to work for a post about modernity and technology. I thought it was a little meta, for lack of a better word.”

It also turns out that no, he wasn’t hating on fountain pens by featuring them in the piece. In fact, he uses those letterpress cards for thank-yous and more formal correspondence, his email continued.

“I certainly do not consider them kitschy, but I do think of fountain pens as cool vintage implements. It’s similar to my record player: it’s a little bit more trouble to use, but has a much higher payoff. The script looks so nice, and the pen feels great in my hand. Plus, as I note above, it’s just aesthetically pleasing to look at.”

So Honan’s a fan. Not quite a diehard like we are. Yet. There’s still time for him to fully convert to the ranks of fountain pen maniacs like us. Someone ought to hook him up with a Parker “51”…

Back to Keller’s piece. Honan points out — and many of the online haters missed — that in his original Tweet, “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss,” Keller wasn’t actually declaring that Twitter makes one stupid. Rather, he was introducing discourse on said topic. Yet, it’s sort of a leading question, isn’t it? It’s like the classic example of the lawyer asking the accused on the witness stand, “How long have you been beating your wife?”

Or put another way: I see a lot of politically inflammatory bumper sticker slogans on my daily commute on Boston’s Route 128. What if I were to just Tweet one of them, verbatim — doesn’t matter whether it leans to the right, or the left — and then simply said, “Discuss.” That would be fodder for an instant flame war.

Put yet another way, how about this Tweet: “Parker collectors have class; Sheaffer collectors have none. Discuss.” Not like I actually said one or the other, but yet…I did. No brilliantly conceived “Extra Fine” essay could extricate me from that one. And it shouldn’t.

Keller knew this when he hit that “Tweet” button. I’m just glad our beloved fountain pens weren’t lumped in together with his screed — because I believe there is a place in this modern world for our crusty old relics. Heck, even Gizmodo bloggers endorse them. What more do you need?

cover Further Reading: The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism, by Joyce Milton
Speaking of New York newspapers, this is one thrilling ride through journalism’s craziest era.

Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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