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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pens and other anachronisms-

I have a fondness for pens. Most particularly, fountain pens and dip pens. Dip pens are those very rudimentary writing instruments that you dip into an ink pot to charge the nib, and have to dip periodically as you write or draw. I have on occasion sat by candle light and written with such a pen. It was satisfying to share that experience with so many writers over many hundreds of years.

Over the years I have owned quite a number of pens, though none were particularly high-end forms of the art. That pens became over time art forms in themselves is not particularly unusual or strange. Perhaps that is part of the attraction, that these ever-so-practical daily tools can be things of great beauty. Anyway, I have owned quite a few.

Sadly, over the years I have used pens less and less. I find that the keyboard serves me much better for the actual act of writing. My wife cannot believe the speed of my typing when I am in the throes of writing. In all actuality I am not that fast on the keyboard. When my thoughts are flowing, however, the clicking can be furious.

My pen related motor skills have deteriorated over time as I have taken pen in hand less and less often. Like any other skill, use of the pen requires time and patience. My penmanship has deteriorated from a not particularly high level to a difficult to read scrawl. I must concentrate to physically write, and sometimes even forget how to form cursive letters.

From a practical perspective, this is not much of a loss. The keyboard is currently the mode of written communication. When I was in junior high school nearly half-a-century ago I elected to take typing classes. Keyboard writing was not common then, and few males elected to learn the skill. Children in the current era grow up keyboarding, cultivating a more ad hoc skill with sheer volume of use.

How many young people know nothing more of pens than the common stick pen that is sold by the dozen, and thrown away when it no longer has ink? Many adults my own age, or near to that age, are not aware of the pen as art. Such pens are expensive, and belong to a declining culture. A fine writing instrument can only be appreciated by those who practice fine writing, who value paper and ink and the very lines themselves.

They shall be kept alive, as are many anachronism and symbolic items from past eras. That is encouraging. The more beautiful representatives of the art form shall be elements of sophisticated and rare collections, viewed and appreciated by ever declining numbers of people. Like the charred stick from which they came, pens will simply become curiosities from another time.

From what I have seen, the physical keyboard is on the same path. Only a limited number of communication devices (cell phones in particular) now have physical keyboards. The keyboard as art has not had the centuries necessary to mature, and may never attain the status of the fine art pen. Oh, there have been attempts, and good ones at that. However, the time of the keyboard may well be ending.

From the most practical perspective, these transitions are not bad. The purpose of writing, no matter what the mode, is communication. Changes in the interface between ourselves and our communication technology will necessarily evolve, and only those evolutions that allow us to get the job done will survive. It is difficult to speculate what those evolutions may involve. They are happening fast, and in such volume that I cannot follow all of it.

We will each of us hold to the mode of communication that works for us. Some of us will be so bound to a mode that is falling behind the evolutionary curve that we shall fall out of the current center of human culture. Like little old ladies with excellent penmanship but nobody left to whom to write, we will drift to some cultural eddy and practice our anachronistic skills until we fade from history altogether.

The river of time flows rapidly, and none of us knows where we shall eventually wash up. So, if you happen to find me in some cultural backwater, banging away on an ancient keyboard or dipping a rusty pen in a bottle of aged ink, treat me kindly.


Carol said...

My penmanship is horrible! I remember when I was a teenager, writing my name over and over and over again, I wanted to have beautiful handwriting. These days my signature is reduced to the letters CMP and a swirling line that represents the rest of my last name. I had to write a check recently and discovered that I've just about forgotten how. Maybe I need a new pen.

Pam said...

I hear you on this! I teach 8th grade and a lot of my students don't even know how to write in cursive. They can't sign their names!