Christmas Idea: Fountain Pen

Not that long ago I
heard that Biro, a manufacturer of cheap pens, has now accounted for 100 billion Bic pens. These little pieces of silliness are disposable and are now clogging up pipes, glutting our dump yards, and defying
the world’s nature decomposition. So, let me urge you to stop buying
Bics, buy a fountain pen, and be a person who uses the same pen for the
rest of your life. It is a matter of stewardship. So, here an
abbreviated history of fountain pens.

We once wrote with feather quills from real birds dipped (the quills, that
is) in ink, then we wrote with crude hand-made quill pens that were
also dipped in ink, then we wrote with fountain pens that had a hidden
reservoir that sometimes leaked, and then Mr. Biro invented the
discardable ball-point pen, and now you and I have colors and shapes
and any kind of pen we want. They are cheap and they are easy. Some see
this as clear evidence of progress and improvement.

For reasonable people, Biro is a disaster.

Some of us prefer a pen that stays with you for life, like a
fountain pen. I know that using a ballpoint pen is easy and that it is
the end of a line of technological progress, but there is something
special and personal about a fountain pen (unless you, for some unknown reason, are hard of
heart). A fountain pen becomes your friend after you’ve filled it for years — and
I prefer piston fillers rather than the little plastic cartridges that
also clog up the world.

Go ahead, pick up a fountain pen and feel a work of art but Bics aren’t. They are cheap; the ink is fake; the pen has no balance; it
makes one wonder how humans could do this to themselves. Try on a
Pelikan or a Waterman — I’ve got a number of fountain pens and each is a friend.

The fountain pen I prefer the most is a pen that was Mark Twain’s
favorite: a Conklin Crescent Filler. When Twain was writing, in the
(good ol’) days when everyone wrote with a fountain pen, the problem
was that one had to dip the pen in a bottle of ink. This was messy,
time consuming and a constantly interrupted one’s thoughts. Conklin
designed a pen with a crescent-shaped device that made it easy and
clean to draw ink into a rubber bladder that was sealed inside the pen. When Midwesterner Mark Twain signed on, it was an instant success. The Conklin
fountain pen was a landmark of technological progress and improvement.

The Bic pen by Biro was a technological marvel that told people that
one of life’s singular niceties, a fountain pen one purchased and used
for life, was a has-been that could be discarded. As for me and my
house, we will use the fountain pen whenever possible.

I tell you the truth, grab a piece of history and pick up a fountain
pen. Think the Egyptian Nile and the old papyrus — fountain pen; think
of Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa — fountain pen; think of Luther –
fountain pen; think of Calvin (if you must) — fountain pen. Think
Menno Simons — fountain pen. If it was good enough for the
Cappadocians and Reformers, it’s good enough for me. Come to think of
it, maybe it is the fountain pen that gave them their care for language.

Nothing discardable, friends. Do I have a witness?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    Wouldn’t your penultimate paragraph be arguing for a return to the quill?

  • Richard Featherstone

    I’d sign on to your campaign, but someone seems to have absconded with my $47 Waterman fountain pen.

  • Diane

    Question: I love the idea of a fountain pen for life, but how do you keep from losing it? I am always losing pens, which is why I buy the cheap ones.
    I agree that progress is not so good and that tradition is best. So, Scot (and the shadowy Kris) whom we love, how about going back to old JC site? Just for tradition’s sake :) ….

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Scot, in your coaching days, did the fountain pen work pretty well in combination with your baseball uniform, active boys, and the dust, sweat and grime of the dugout?
    If I were richer, less absent-minded, and right-handed, I would invest in such a pen and would enjoy writing just for the sheer pleasure of it. Perhaps I would write the Instructions of Amenemope just to feel connected to the learning and language from the ancients until today. Alas, I can’t afford it, would lose it, and would smear it. Sure, in theory, left-handers can use these things but it hasn’t worked out so well for me. So all you ink-dipping snobs enjoy yourselves. I’m going to steal another Pilot pen from work for those few occasions when a keyboard isn’t available!

  • RJS

    MatthewS – Perhaps the solution is a move to Tel Aviv? Now we know why Scot goes for Greek not Hebrew.
    Pilot please!

  • EricW

    I think the fountain pen I got for my Bar Mitzvah is stored away with my slide rule.

  • RJS

    Of course in the interests of full disclosure – I must admit that I have never used a fountain pen, except in a Junior High art class, oh so many years ago.
    Now I’ve lost all expectation of respect … without the weight of history and tradition behind my writing, why bother?

  • ChrisB

    You are aware that there are ballpoint pens you can keep for the rest of your life, yes?
    I have handwriting like the stereotypical doctor; I need the finest writing tip I can find.

  • http://www.mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Who buys pens? I haven’t bought a pen in years…they’re just always around. Symptoms of what Scot is talking about, I guess, but I’m not paying a hundred dollars for a pen, even if it pays for itself over my lifetime or whatever.
    I’m going back to cuneiform. Got my wet clay, my stylus. Ready to go.

  • MatthewS

    Travis, LOL. Your resume can have a line showing your extra skill of 5 words per minute cuneiform.
    Unrelated: I would be curious to know if beliefnet could use a service like Akisment. Spam would be relegated to the spam folder and it would be invisible to users.

  • Your Name

    what about leftys? Is there any way I can use a fountain pen without making a huge mess?

  • Bill Crawford

    As someone who travels a lot, Scot, how do you carry the pen. I have trouble with it leaking which I have attributed to altitude.

  • Your Name

    Besides the fact that fountain pens are green, they are better for everyone’s writing, because they don’t require so much pressure. Fountain pen (and rollerball) ink is water based; ballpoint ink is waxy. Using a fountain pen is like using a brush, and you don’t have to pay $100 to get one. Lefties can write with fountain pens, too, but it’s more difficult if you hook your hand over your writing. Nearly every pen retailer will let you try fountain pens before you buy them – check them out!

  • qb

    Good grief. With all due respect, this sounds to qb like a soft form of @lit1sm, thinly disguised as environmental sensitivity, which belongs in the ash heap along with this “fair trade coffee” pabulum that often ends up having the opposite effect of the one intended.
    Viva Bic! Viva $0.50 Pilot G-2 rollerballs!
    populist qb

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    Scot, you crack me up. I’m not going to use a fountain pen (though I do enjoy a quality ballpoint and even a felt on occasion–just for a change of feel) chiefly for one reason: my handwriting, though improved over the years, is likely forever short of anything even approaching beautiful. I can occasionally write something short in a card that isn’t offensive to look at, if I really concentrate.
    Using a fountain pen for my scratchings would just make me think I was making Big Macs with beef tenderloin. It might be a bit better, but it’s just not right.

  • http://theeagleandchild.com Marc

    I’m with qb. I like the idea of a fountain pen, but I must say
    the Bic abides.

  • Your Name

    QB, I’m curious as to how you read elitism into the discussion? Fountain pens are not expensive, anyone can own them. There are even disposable fountain pens (if you don’t care about environmental issues) for a few bucks.

  • http://www.elementalcm.com Henry Zonio

    Too funny! Using good stewardship of the environment as a call to use a fountain pen… smooth move. While I probably would enjoy using a fountain pen, someone would have to buy one for me spontaneously. I don’t think I’d ever really ask for one as a gift, but I wouldn’t mind receiving one as a gift :)

  • ScottC

    qb – Can you enlighten me regarding how buying fair trade coffee ends up having a negative effect?

  • qb

    Your Name (17) – just a gut reaction to the humorous idea that Bic pens just don’t pass that lofty “[environmental] stewardship” test.
    And that waxy, waxy ink! *faint*
    Sounds kinda like Sheryl Crow insisting that we only use one square, if ya know what I mean.
    qb

  • qb

    ScottC (19) – others on this estimable blog have done so far more eloquently than qb could do…and quite recently. Poke around and see what you can find.
    BTW, what would you say if qb told you that vast increases in irrigation efficiency via low-pressure technology had actually INCREASED the rate of withdrawal from the virtually un-recharged Ogallala Aquifer? You’d say qb was a bona fide nut-job, right? But it belongs in the same category, in a way. So-called “improvements” sometimes make things worse, by some important measures.
    Cheerfully,
    qb

  • RJS

    ScottC – you can poke around (lots of interesting stuff). Or you can try here:Should we buy fair trade coffee?

  • Ken Lippold

    Scot, thank you for saying this. I was given a fountain pen by a friend about 4 years ago and I haven’t used a disposable pen since. I share your sentiment that using a discardable instrument has a connection with using discardable words, however, a timeless instrument may just foster a more timeless collection of words.

  • Julie

    This post reminds me of the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who has the obsession with typewriters! :o) I hear the logic, but honestly I type most everything anymore so I’m not sure the investment in a fountain pen would be worthwhile. I bought a box of Bic pens probably 3 years ago and still haven’t run out of them. However, I think it would be a lovely gift and environmentally conscious for someone who actually writes things down instead of sending an email, posting on Facebook, or using the Outlook calendar! Perhaps this is more of a commentary on the computer age than anything else.

  • http://thelisteningear.typepad.com Arlyn Norris

    Scot,
    I share your love of fountain pens. I use mine for my journal all the time. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago that expresses my sentiments.
    Marble Green Waterman Hemisphere Fountain Pen
    By Arlyn Norris
    From a vein that is always open
    you bleed a winding trail
    of indigo blood, a thin stain
    that skips and twists, leaving
    bruised tattoos in narrow
    bands across the pale skin of paper.
    My fingers grip your torso,
    squeezing words, one letter
    at a time from your single-
    chambered heart. I know
    whose blood this is. There’s
    a price to pay for each drop
    I use to stain the page.
    Through an open window the dirge
    of turtle doves drifts on crisp
    morning air. The fragrance of coffee
    mingled with chocolate steams
    from my cup and the deep purple
    of a hyacinth drifts on our backyard pond.
    These droplets of life congeal
    on the page, silhouettes flowing
    from your mysterious entrails.
    What will I divine from these strange
    shapes? I look for healing as I think about joys
    I have savored, pains I have endured.

  • RJS

    Julie,
    But computers give us electrons, pixels, and editability…
    Fountain pens – permanence and artistry…
    Just read this post. Could such eloquent expression have been composed on a crass computer?
    Must be a Moleskine and a Pelikan.

  • http://thelisteningear.typepad.com Arlyn Norris

    Scot,
    I share your love of fountain pens. I use mine with my journal every day! Here’s a poem that I wrote some years ago that expresses by sentiments.
    Marble Green Waterman Hemisphere Fountain Pen
    By Arlyn Norris
    From a vein that is always open
    you bleed a winding trail
    of indigo blood, a thin stain
    that skips and twists, leaving
    bruised tattoos in narrow
    bands across the pale skin of paper.
    My fingers grip your torso,
    squeezing words, one letter
    at a time from your single-
    chambered heart. I know
    whose blood this is. There’s
    a price to pay for each drop
    I use to stain the page.
    Through an open window the dirge
    of turtle doves drifts on crisp
    morning air. The fragrance of coffee
    mingled with chocolate steams
    from my cup and the deep purple
    of a hyacinth drifts on our backyard pond.
    These droplets of life congeal
    on the page, silhouettes flowing
    from your mysterious entrails.
    What will I divine from these strange
    shapes? I look for healing as I think about joys
    I have savored, pains I have endured.

  • George Ruddell

    Hi Scot
    I enjoyed reading your piece about fountain pens. I never use anything other than a fountain pen or a propelling pencil. I have three fountain pens and four or five pencil pens. I never use biros … unless ballpoint is required for an application form, etc.
    I also enjoyed your slightly tongue in cheek comment about Calvin!!
    Blessings from Northern Ireland.
    George

  • http://jibstay.blogspot.com Don

    Ah, Scot, a topic worthy and wonderful. I am using my 20 year old Waterman every day. It writes so smoothly I can actually leave it mid-sentence, go get a cup of coffee, return, and find that it has finished a paragraph alone and in better form than with my hand!

  • Daniel S

    Great sales pitch. But… do they leak?

  • Scot McKnight

    I once wrote a post about fountain pens and leaking, and said it had happened to me only once on a plane — and I didn’t even get anything on my shirt. But, I have to say this: a leaking splotch is a sign of distinction. It identifies one fountain pen to another. I’ve smiled at folks with splotches and they’ve smiled back. Kind of a … “we’re in this together, aren’t we!”
    But, I don’t think they leak on air planes anymore. I always take a fountain pen with me on my flights and I never have trouble.
    As for losing them… what can I say? Pay attention, it’s a friend. Think of it as one of your children.

  • Your Name

    Scot,
    There is a problem with your beloved fountain pen. For those of us who are left-handed writing with such a device is completely counterproductive as all you get is several lines of smudges.
    They are a tool of the right-handed majority to keep the left-handed minority down.


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