The Value of a Pen

My relationship with pens, even to me, is a bit strange. I’m not quite so sure why I like them as much as I do. Maybe it’s not something that I need to figure out but it’s something that I question from time to time.

In my view, literacy is the greatest of successes in human history. The eradication of illiteracy should be a priority of philanthropic organizations. The Gutenberg press marked the beginning of a change in society. Reading was no longer the domain of the elite. I’m not sure when people began to write but I’m guessing that it wasn’t too long afterward. People were able to communicate with more people than could hear them. The ideas they were sharing could be recalled, analyzed, and further developed. Words could spread.

The pen became a necessary tool. Without it, one couldn’t write. In order to make use of near-universal literacy, a pen is needed. It’s certainly a romantic notion: one mind with access to a pen is able to leave a legacy.

In the 21st Century, this isn’t as much the case. You no longer need a pen to reach the world. You need a computer. Whatever is done by hand, whether it’s a painting or calligraphy, is that much more special. I’d even argue that its true beauty is recognized less often because we are less able to measure its value against other similar objects. We can no longer appreciate beautiful handwriting for what it is because we are no longer familiar enough with what it is.

For my part, my penmanship has become almost illegible. Even I have trouble reading it. There was a time when I was almost proud of my penmanship. It was so long ago that I’ve almost forgotten about it. Even still, I place value on the pens that I use.

About a month ago now, I bought two packs of Bic Cristal pens. For me, this is a strange thing to do. Only on the rarest of occasions will I opt for the value option when it comes to writing instruments. This last time, I sought them out. My express purpose was to purchase those particular pens.

Somehow, I came to realize that I’m too precious about the pens that I use. I’m careful with my pens and I care for them. I don’t like to see them being misused or unused. When I purchase a pen, I have thought carefully about how I’m going to use it. I give careful consideration to the value that the pen will bring into my life.

These days, most of my pens, no matter how much I love them, sit unused. I have little use for most of the pens that I own. Many are stored away in a shoebox that sits on a shelf next to my desk. Most of the work that I do is done digitally.

Indeed, that I’m writing the first draft of this post out by hand won’t matter much after I type it up and publish it on the internet.

The reason I like my iPad Pro as much as I do is because of the Apple Pencil. When I bought it, I thought that that would spell the end of any future purchases of pens. I imagined that my world would exist almost entirely digitally. As it turns out, there is no perfect replacement for writing with a pen on paper.

But there is very little need to write with a pen on paper. In fact, it’s inefficient and wasteful. Paper is harder to organize, takes up more space, is not easily searchable, is susceptible to damage and loss, and seems to be getting more expensive. Digital options mitigate many of these issues.

What digital tools aren’t better at is replicating the feeling of writing. The scratch that a pen makes across a sheet of paper is terribly satisfying. Paper also holds on to every mark made; you can’t fully erase anything that you’ve written.

If this is all true, and the joy of writing is what keeps me using pen and paper, why would I suddenly decide that the best option would be Bic Cristal pens?

I wanted to have pens that I didn’t have to worry about. I wanted to be able to grab the nearest available pen and start writing. I wanted to absolve myself of some of my worries. I wanted to care less, to have less to care about.

What ended up happening is the opposite. I found that I have to care more. I have to make an additional decision before I start writing. I have to choose a pen. Even though every Bic Cristal blue pen is nearly identical, I have twenty-four to choose from.

Small things have started to feel inconvenient. Starting a new pen requires that you scribble back-and-forth to get the ink flowing. The caps are tight on a new pen. I think about finding a pen that I’ve used before but they’re indistinguishable. Simply put, I am overwhelmed with choice.

With a dedicated pen, I have fewer decisions to make before I start writing. I know which pens work with what paper. I’m familiar with the choices I’m making.

All of this could easily be eradicated by typing. Each keyboard feels different but not as different as there are varieties of pens and paper. With typing, there’s no worry about compatibility, colour, bleeding, or legibility. Typing solves a lot of problems.

Handwriting is antiquated and, arguably, anachronistic. This, however, is part of its charm. Everybody’s handwriting is unique. It varies. It’s distinct. It’s personal. It’s beautiful.

There are people who are okay with leaving the past behind but I’m too sentimental. I’ve kept a journal since I was a pre-teen. For me, it’s always been the place where my voice comes through the loudest. My journals have always been safe places, unimpeded by electricity. My journals are the closest reflection of who I was and who I am, even down to my handwriting.

This, for me, is the value of a pen. It is the mark of my own hand.

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