August 19, 2010


When I was in elementary school and brought homework with me on weekend visits with my father, my stepmother knew how to coax me into doing it. She was raised in Wisconsin, the oldest daughter of thirteen children and knew plenty about raising a youngster. On a Saturdays, I’d rather play than do school work so she allowed me to use her special fountain pen which made me feel grown-up. It was short and fat, like a jumbo-sized crayola, and felt natural in a small hand. What I loved most about it was the nib which drew a line the width of spider’s silk and did it smoothly as if it were gliding across glass. With my stepmother beside me, I’d work happily at my lessons without complaint. I don’t know what became of that pen. I’ve never seen another like it and I have looked.

Fountain pens are out of style now which is a shame because ball point pens don’t provide the connection between hand and paper that a pen with a nib does. I don’t know why that connection exists but it does, the same way a good brush becomes a natural extension of an artist’s hand. 

Of course writing letters with a pen of any kind is out of style. I read somewhere that children born after 1992 aren’t taught to write with cursive letters anymore. Electronic devices have eliminated the need to write by hand. I don’t know what happens when a signature is required.

What I’m really bemoaning, I suppose, is the death of the handwritten letter. For hundreds of years, it was an art form in itself.  One sat down with one’s accouterments, a pen, ink, paper and an envelope and began to arrange one’s thoughts. The sensitivity of the nib to the paper’s grain seemed to aid in the mental process. For this reason, a few writers still put pen to a yellow pad when they write their books. 

I know all this assembling of items and scratching slowly across a page seems anachronistic. Why bother when thoughts can be sent around the world electronically in a fraction of a second? But I suspect the speed of transmission is a detriment to thought. Sometimes we push the send button too quickly to our embarrassment or regret. Sometimes those words float around in space to haunt us years later. 

Writing a letter slows us down. If we don’t like what we’ve written we can tear it up. There is time for reflection. 

I suspect most of us would admit to being delighted to receive a handwritten letter in the mail. We can sit in a comfy chair, away from the computer, and savor someone’s message over a cup of coffee.

We collect autographs and diaries of famous people because they are valuable. But why are they valuable? I think it’s because we imagine the spirit of the writer lives in that cursive hand. Honestly, would an e-mail from John Lennon be as collectible as a signed letter? 

It’s all very fine to require students to have access to computers as a part of their education, but I would require them to have fountain pens as well, short fat ones with spidery nibs.