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someone writing with a fountain pen

The Pen and the Keyboard

Mark Bauerlein

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  • John Burzynski

    I have several fountain pens, and use them very frequently. They are magical to write with, and nothing beats writing something down to committ it to memory.

  • Craig Cottongim

    I’m a Ticonderoga man, myself.

  • Ian Gray

    Research also suggests that taking lecture notes by hand rather than using a keyboard results in increased learning: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking (Psychological Science Vol 25, Issue 6, 2014 ) Vol 25, Issue 6, 2014

  • Beate Foit

    This article supports my belief that using a fountain pen forces you to be more deliberate in your writing. I have always loved writing letters, poems, short stories, essays with my beloved MontBlanc fountain pen in royal blue ink. Growing up in Germany in the 50s, I learned to take pride in writing with a fountain pen, Pelikan or GeHa. I passed on my love of hand writing with a fountain pen to my daughter. Beautiful handwriting is an art and it is regrettable that schools no longer instruct students in this art. Thank you for your article.

  • Gabriel Rochelle, Mesilla NM

    I was intrigued by the overall content of the issue and, lo and behold, there's a article on handwriting! I have been working for almost a year on a book on handwriting and calligraphy, and the author of the article makes many of the same points I've come to see as relevant to the revival and how it fits into our late techno culture. I asked some of the young people in our family, when we had a little gathering of 47 family members at Thanksgiving, if any of their professors had suggested they use pens rather than computers. To my delight, several said yes, and one niece indicated that one professor had distributed an article that made a case for better thinking and memorization by handwriting notes in classes. Keep up the good work!

If you go online and type into the search box “Pelikan fountain pen 1950s,” dozens of images pop up displaying vintage items for sale. They range in value, some as low as fifty dollars, gold nib and all. “Go out and buy one,” I encourage the students in my classes and the teens and twenty-somethings in the audience when I give a lecture. “Tell your parents that you want an old fountain pen for Christmas or graduation.”

I hold up a pen of my own and they gaze at it with some curiosity and amusement. When I exhort them to get one for themselves, they look quizzical at first, and then interested. Nobody had ever suggested this to them before, and it makes them reflect. It’s as if a new character trait springs upon them and makes them ponder themselves in a new, more expansive way. A fancy pen of my own…

American youths are so enveloped in digital novelties that an old-fashioned implement wholly foreign to peer pressure and youth culture strikes them as a puzzle – but a compelling one. They do like the idea of a personal writing tool, though it never occurred to them before. A vintage pen signifies much more than just another tool, even to the tuned-in and logged-on Millennial.

The strangeness of handwriting is part of its advantage.

The reason is simple. Consider one of the things you do with that pen: sign your name. A signature is a special action. It identifies a human being; more than that, it uniquely stands for him. It is individual. When you sign your name, you inscribe yourself. Nobody else can do it – only you. In fact, your signature has legal and binding status.

There we have the great distinction between the pen and the keyboard. When ten people type a sentence onto the screen, they all create the exact same thing. When they write ­identical words by hand, the material product varies with every writer. Every hand is ­singular, and so is each person’s handwriting. When a twenty-year-old drops the keyboard and takes up the fountain pen, a wondrous individualization transpires. The keyboard “technologizes” them into users. There, they produce the same fonts. The pen characterizes them as distinct. They produce unique scripts.

And let’s not reduce the value of hand­writing to a decorative feature. Close the laptop and hand a Millennial a Mont Blanc or Parker or Visconti, and he will value more highly the art of writing. He will take his words more seriously. They will appear as his creation. He made those words, not a computer. The pen, thereby, becomes an extension of his sensibility. When he has a pen in his hand – especially a pen that was not mass-produced – he feels a heavier burden of self-expression. The individuality of his handwriting promotes the individuality of his writing. To compose a cliché with a Pelikan in hand is harder than to compose one on a Mac.

Of course, 21st-century youths look at handwriting as a clunky process, and the schools support them. Instruction in cursive writing has steadily disappeared from the elementary school curriculum. Now, when college ­students hand in their tests, teachers struggle to ­decipher the scratchings they submit.

But the strangeness of handwriting is part of its advantage. Its inefficiency affects students in just the way English teachers want. Young people do everything else with the keyboard, and when they write a paper on it the act blends with all the other messages they send in the day’s communications. Writing by hand forces them into a plodding endeavor that won’t yield to interruptions or accustomed habits of expression. When they compose on a computer, students are constantly deflected by emails or the ding of new text messages, and these diversions break the verbal flow. Nothing like that can happen with only a page in front of them. What the students take as an impoverishment is, in fact, an improvement.

And so I press them to acquire a pen, an old one that isn’t like anybody else’s. Most students come to college with little confidence in their writing abilities,footnote and freshman composition may be the most dreaded and disliked course in college. Students want to move on to business and pre-med and psychology, not prolong the drudgery of exposition. They know they aren’t good at it, too (only 61 percent of entering students are even “college ready” for freshman English, according to ACT).footnote Every paper assignment makes them anxious, and they employ the customary tactics of coping. They consult websites for ideas, for instance, a web page that hands them an interpretation of an Emily Dickinson poem, and delay the work until the night before the paper is due. Then they open the laptop and pound out the sentences as fast as they can. Anything to avoid making the writing process a careful, deliberate, and expressive activity. It’s too unpleasant.

But handwriting nudges them in another direction. It asks students to approach their writing not so much as a mechanical procedure but as a creative one, or at least an individual one. They will work harder to make their prose live up to the pen in their hand. All of them want the latest iPhone. The colleges they attend boast of cutting-edge technology. But all those tools are mass-produced. Kids who get an iPhone or tablet immediately set about customizing them. At the mall they browse the kiosks that display rows of cell phone cases in wild colors. They want to tailor their gear to their personality. The Digital Age promises to amplify their being – YouTube’s original motto was “Broadcast Yourself” – but, in truth, it only delivers a horde of users with identical devices echoing one another in cyberspace.

Instead of joining the digital race, a youth with a sixty-year-old Parker Duofold simply draws it out of his pocket, unscrews the cap, opens the notebook, and begins scribbling. It’s distinguished and it’s fun. Most of all, for those of us who teach writing, not to mention the employers who complain about bad prose in the workplace, it leads the youths we want to improve to do just that, to write better ­sentences and paragraphs.


Photograph by Gajus/iStock, Signatures: image detail from Skye Gould in “The 17 Coolest Signatures of Famous People Through History” / Business Insider

a list of signatures of famous people

Footnotes

  1. Kevin Eagan et al., “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015” Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2015. heri.ucla.edu
  2. ACT, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2017,” September 7, 2017. act.org
Contributed By Mark Bauerlein

The author is senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, and has also served at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief (1997) and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008).

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