By Michael W. Harris
I love technology. Let me get that out of the way and established. I can build you a computer, install the OS, and get it on-line and running in just a few days. Need a home theatre system installed but don’t know a coax from HDMI? I can help you with that. Want multiple game consoles running into a single receiver with the ability to record to a PC for streaming your sick [Insert Current Popular Battle Royale Game Here] rounds? I can even get that sorted for you.
This is all to say that I am unafraid and embrace the tech…despite the fact that my most recent game consoles are the PlayStation 2 and the NES and SNES Classics. I have also ditched the home built PCs for a Surface, and my home theatre setup is now a lowly 2.1 system (when I used to have a full 7.1) with a regular TV instead of a projector. And in a sign of what is to come, that system still has a CD player and turntable hooked up.
In many ways, as the technology has gotten easier and less complex to use and install, I have scaled back my own setups—though multiple moves in just three years after living in the same place for seven also has a way of forcing one to scale back. But, in that same time, I have also been drawn to two decidedly older and analog hobbies, or maybe fascinations is a better term: pens (or stationary products in general and fountain pens more precisely) and gins.
I have already talked about the latter at some length, so I will largely set gin aside for now. So instead, let’s talk about the former: pens and paper.
* * *
My love of fine stationary products did not come out of nowhere. Long before I ever held my first fountain pen in 2013, I had opinions about pens, pencils, and paper (which is to say I was opinionated). I have cycled through many over the years, but the ones I remember gravitating to the most were: the Pentel 0.5mm P205 mechanical pencil (I always preferred the feel of mechanical to wood), the uni-ball Signo Gel 207 rollerball gel pen, and the ever reliable Mead Composition Books (college ruled, of course). There was also a brief flirtation with felt tip pens, but they always dried out too fast.
The fact that can still remember these pens and pencils should tell you something about my abiding love of reliable writing instruments. I always had opinions, and very strong ones at that. What is more remarkable, thought, is that my opinions formed before I knew anything about these products and makers. I couldn’t tell your Pentel from Pilot. Paper Mate from uni-ball. And the only reason I knew what a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil was, was because of a line from Mel Brooks’ The Producers (link). I was opinionated, but unschooled. Plus, I was too busy playing with computers and increasingly working almost entirely within digital workflows that it didn’t matter.
However, I still preferred taking notes by hand. It was quicker and I loved the feel of good paper under my pen—and I always preferred pen to pencil. I didn’t like the feel of wood or graphite in my hand, and broken leads really annoy me (and my heavy hand really did break A LOT of leads, though this will hopefully change the more I write with fountain pens). Yet, I still resisted taking “the plunge.”
I never went beyond what I could buy at Target or Wal-Mart, though I was always fascinated by the journals sections at Barnes and Noble. I even played around with the occasional Moleskine when they become all the rage in the early 2000s, but I started and stopped journaling more times than I can count. I even occasionally traded physical letters with friends when they were on trips, or extended stays overseas, but it never stuck. And with email just a click away—with texting making that seem slow—and apps like Evernote making my notebooks feels heavy, why would I ever need paper again?
Why did I continue to hear the siren song of pen paper? What gives? Why did a tech obsessed, early adopter like myself fall head over heels into the niche world of Sailor Pro Gears, Rhodia dot pads, and Iroshizuku inks?
A lot has been written on the resurgence of analog products like vinyl records and board games. There is no shortage of theorizing to be done about the cultural moment that we find ourselves in and how it has driven some to embrace older technology while also reinventing it for a new generation of users. But I will leave the commentary for others and focus on myself and what I think is going on with me.
* * *
My love of good (or at least decent) pens and paper never went away, but it did need to find a proper outlet. As I began to simplify my tech—and also lost interest in video games as the control schemes became increasingly complex—I was starting to get more into my academic research side. And then I became a librarian and archivist. And while pens are verboten in archives-world, I would need a good pencil. I could also still use my pens for note taking on things I was reading. But these pursuits simply reaffirmed what I already enjoyed and used. For me to have fallen down the rabbit hole so hard at this moment, in 2018, was the culmination of many smaller events that become clear in hindsight. Specifically, these eight moments that occurred between 2013 and 2018:
- I was gifted my first fountain pen (a Pelikan M200) by a dear friend when I finished my PhD in 2013. It was not love at first nib, but it certainly was a hearty nudge down the path. And the idea of fountain pens is just cool.
- Sometime after that (less than a year), I bought a second fountain pen (a Lamy Studio), plus a nice mechanical pencil (a Retro 51 Hex-o-matic).
- In 2014, I started working in a special collections unit in which I learned a lot more about the history of paper, ink, printing, and book making. It was also where I started thinking a lot more about the history of writing, permanence, and the transmission of ideas, and so on. Analog permanence versus our digital ephemerality.
- In 2016 and 2017, I started to discover the world of the Everyday Carry and binged on many videos on YouTube. As an offshoot of my stationary product interest was also an endless search for the perfect bag (love me my Tom Bihn). This would eventually lead me to the sadly almost never updated “Wood & Graphite” channel (though the man behind that channel is also doing the 1857 podcast, and in a stunning turn of events, the YouTube channel published a new video in between my writing my first draft of this post and the day it went up!).
- Sometime around 2016 I also stumbled upon the books of the author I call my “Canadian Doppelganger:” Michael Harris. While his books The End of Absence and Solitude echoed many things I was already thinking about my digital life, reading them brought these stray notions into sharper focus.
- While on a trip to England in the summer of 2017, I wandered into a bookstore and was fascinated by the different paper formats and other pen manufactures on display. Mind you, this was just a run of the mill campus bookstore, but it was like candy to me.
- While at a wedding that same summer, I had a chat with the best man, and fraternity brother, about fountain pens. He had fallen deep down the same rabbit hole that I was unknowingly less than a year away from. I showed him my Pelikan and Lamy, he showed me some of the ones he had with him (I can’t remember what now, though). Little did I know that I was merely on the other side of the looking glass.
- After starting and stopping use of my fountain pens more time than I can count, I finally learned how to really use (and clean) them after stumbling onto a random YouTube channel…Goulet Pens, an on-line retailer who is just up the road in Richmond, VA. For the curious, the video that randomly popped up in my YouTube recommendations list that opened the flood gates was a tour of the Lamy factory in Germany.
You can see, it was no single event, but a slow accumulation of things that finally led to the plunge. All the while, there was a parallel movement going on among people my age and younger that was driving the construction of new communities around stationary products. The people making the content (like “Wood & Graphite,” Goulet Pens, and “The Pen Addict”) that were breadcrumbs leading me down the path.
Moreover, because I am curious by nature, and a researcher by trade, once I discovered what these people had done before me, I started reading and watching, trying out different pens and nibs, learning about ink properties and weight of paper (GSM), and looking for new ways to use these magnificent writing instruments. This also led to connecting, and reconnecting in some instances, with friends old and new. Learning how to adapt workflows and tools to incorporate more analog tools, and even embrace some new (to me) digital tools in novel ways (hello finally starting an Instagram account).
I even joined two message boards dedicated to pens and other stationary, which represents a true stepping outside of my comfort zone. I have always avoided these sort of things because of my “never read the comments” mentality and the vile cesspool that is so much of the internet. But the community surrounding fountain pens seems wonderful and welcoming, something which I (and the world, really) need right now.
I’ll eventually circle back around to this idea.
* * *
My analog revival lined up with my bowtie and nerdy socks revolution, in a possibly strange coincidence. It was a moment when I reformed parts of my outward identity to better match what I feel like was always on the inside, but that I had previously kept buried.
Because of this, one could make the argument that the fact that this personal analog revolution and identity makeover came as I was reaching the steady state point of my weight loss journey is telling or significant…and they would not be wrong. I think that the fact that I was finally comfortable in my own skin, happy and healthy at the same time, and more confident in expressing myself as the unique individual that I am, has a lot to do with it. And it didn’t hurt that I was in a new place and had a bit of a clean state to work with; new people unburdened by older ideas of who I am “supposed to be.”
I could make a clean break with the past.
One could also argue that in the uncertain world that I have inhabited since finishing my PhD—temporary jobs, awful job market, rejection, economic uncertainty, and now the era of Trump—that I have retreated to something stable and tangible. A tactile experience in a digital world. I have embraced objects with materiality (or as I like to say: “stuffness”), even as I try to pare down my physical collections of media (books, CDs, movies). The tools by which I produce my analyses and commentary have gone analog at the moment when the things I examine have gone completely digital.
Side note: Maybe it is for the best that we make some of the media we consume more ephemeral in nature. Divorce it from the physical nature of ownership. How often do we rewatch movies once we buy them? I often wonder what was behind the drive for me to amass a large collection of DVDs initially. I understand the impulse from a librarian and archivist perspective, but do I really need it in my personal life? And maybe the fact that I am a librarian now is why I feel comfortable letting go of the physical media I have accumulated over the years. However, I still struggle to divorce these competing impulses in my personal and professional life.
One could make a whole host of arguments as to why I have personally made the turn to analog tools for parts of my life, and I think most of them would have a kernel of truth. But the fact that I have always had a love and fascination with pens and paper meant that the budding “Pen Addict” was always lurking in my psyche. He just needed the chance to come out into the sun.
And burst into the light he did as I have gone from 0 to 60 in two months’ time. Though I prefer to see it as more of a emergence from the cocoon that I had been in. I was always a pen addicted person in search of the proper pens.
* * *
But there was something else at play here, a general slowing down of my lifestyle. While so many other people commute by driving themseleves, I have spent the better part of the last decade getting to work via public transit and my own two feet. While I was in my PhD, this afforded me lots of time to do reading for class. Afterwards, it was time for pleasure reading and listening, or, once I started walking most places, podcasts and audiobooks.
This decidedly more old fashioned mode of transportation is part and parcel of a more general “slowing” down of aspects of my life (though also increasingly more organized as I fastidiously keep track of my “To Do’s” to ensure that I actually get all the things done that I need to), as I have worked to not feel like I “have to” keep up with ALL THE THINGS. I want to focus my life on the things that actively bring me pleasure with their consumption, not anxiety that I might miss something.
And walking helps me with that. Not only is it the primary mode in which I get in physical activity while also pushing myself harder to walk further and faster (my current walk to work of roughly 1.75 miles over uneven terrain takes me 35 minutes), but enjoying the outdoors, feeling the pavement and earth beneath my feet, the sun and clouds and rain…it is rejuvenating for the soul.
Around the same time that I read the books of Michael Harris (no relation) referenced above, I also picked up A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros. In it he talks about the different whys and hows of walking. The impulse for walkers to amble about. Walking is about putting one foot in front of the other for reasons of not only getting somewhere, but also what we can do with that time. As Harry Chapin sang, “it’s got to be the goin’, not the gettin’ there that’s good.” And my walks to and from work are wonderful, even in the humidity and heat of a Virginia summer. I would not trade them for anything. Driving is stressful, and as cars become increasingly an extension of our on-line life, I will enjoy my simple, analog mode of transportation through the courtesy of my own two feet…while also using my iPhone to listen to podcasts and track my steps (have to make sure to get those in!).
Regardless, walking is good for both my body and my soul.
* * *
So, let’s zoom back out a little and bring gin back into the conversation, and also talk about the wider cultural moment along with my own personal psychology before bringing this to a close. There is little doubt that these past five years have been rough, and the last year in particular. I don’t deal well with uncertainty, and not knowing where I might be working, if I will have a job, moving, plus aging and seeing friends and loved ones seemingly pass me by in checking off those boxes on the milestones of life (marriage, house, kids, etc.) has been difficult.
I have also been troubled by many an existential identity crisis as I have had to constantly reevaluate who I am as my career focus has gone from college professor to would be archivist and rare books librarian to instruction librarian. And while there is a through line in all these things that has come into stark focus these past few months as I have been forced to confront “Who I Am” in the form of writing cover letters, it has been difficult to face an uncertain personal future.
This “analog as identity” goes hand-in-hand with the somewhat hipster vibe that I resist in my analog revival. It is hard to fight against the feeling that I have sort of taken on that affectation of the dreaded hipster, but it is true that, as David Sax quotes in his Revenge of Analog, “vinyl is an identity,” (p. 22) and we (I) can’t dismiss that. It is true that I have essentially constructed for myself a new identity with these things making up a part of its core. And this new construction comes as I start to pare down what was a big part of my identity previously: comic book collecting. Maybe it was admitting that the large part of my comic collecting (Fantastic Four) was at its major end (I only need to get four more issues to complete the collection), that was behind my impulse to find a new collecting hobby?
So, you bundle all of this together with the uncertainty of a world facing resurgent nationalism, xenophobia, intolerance of difference, and so on…well is it any wonder that I want to take comfort in a few things that seem not only stable and tangible, and maybe hearken back to a simpler (but a not really better) world? On top of that, these things are also part of a wider cultural movement that is more focused on community building, embracing differences rather than rejecting them, and in general representing a counter narrative to the divisive culture that we are currently living in.
The current fountain pen (and wider stationary) and craft gin (and broader craft brewing/distilling) revivals both have elements of the more general small batch, handcrafted, maker, self-employed, side hustle, be your own boss, rejection of mass market consumerism and neo-liberal economic ideas movement. It is the embrace of the personal while also having some roots in the large corporations. (I love both Tanqueray and craft gins, custom pen makers along with Pilot and Pelikan, and see no contradiction in this.) But all of these things were also somewhat niche to begin with. Gin was being solidly overshadowed by vodka and whisky before its resurgence in recent years, and fountain pens were the domain of our grandparents and great-grandparents, at least in the States.
Temporally, these loves of mine are part of the Mad Men era that the GOP wants to make America like again…though many that embrace these things represent those that fight against that particular movement.
So, is my love of pens and gins a retreat or a way forward? Are these symbols of our past haunting our present because of a lost future we were all promised? Our utopias gone in a wave of ultranationalism, trade wars, and having rights stripped away by strong-arm demagogues? And in response we embrace the tools and pleasures of a past era while infusing them with the thing that was missing from them the first time around: community and a personal connection.
If gins and pens truly belong to that period from the 1900s to 1950s, especially the ‘50s and early ‘60s when they were made by American post-war manufacturing, then they were also part of that mass-produced industrial boom that represented the heyday of American employment, education, and economy that is part of the delusion of “Make American Great Again” that will never happen in the way that those who crow about it want.
Indeed, if we are to truly “make America great,” or in my mind “keep American good,” then we must embrace the new economic models represented by “pens and gins.” A model that is a combination of well-made products representing both overseas production, traditional brands, plus young start-ups and makers who innovate and add the local and personal touch. On top of which is a resurgent spirit of inclusive community that supports new people with a desire to learn. Both pens and gins have rich histories and traditions worth exploring. Vintage pens can still work with a little care and restoration, and the history of gin-making is ancient and intersects with so many parts of our cultural heritage. These sorts of hobbies and interests—which can support many aspects of our culture, society, and economy—build each other up instead of erecting walls around us. They can also stimulate learning and are exactly what we need at a time when we wrestle with what shape our future will take.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that a lot of these sorts of communities are springing up right as our older way of identifying and building communities (namely religion and national identity, whose decline is exactly what the MAGA crowd fears most) have been decentered in our modern world. This is not to say that the people involved in these niche hobbies are not religious or proud of the nation, but there is a correlation (which is not causation) in the fall of one type of identification and the rise of another. And while many of these communities began and continue to be built via the digital space, they are increasingly going analog with in-person meet-ups, clubs, and conventions.
Maybe this is an overly grandiose vision of what pens and gins represent. Certainly is it not consciously what I was thinking when I began my turn towards both in the years following the completion of my PhD…but at the same time I think it was there on an unconscious level. Especially as both the uncertainty of my future combined with local stores in Boulder that could support my burgeoning habits, converged to create the unique conditions that allowed them to be nurtured and eventually thrive.
So support your local pen and gin purveyor. But also don’t discount the classic brands as they also have important roles to play. And also love everyone and imagine them complexly. We are all merely humans on a Pale Blue Dot: “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
N.B.-This is a classic example of what happens sometimes when I start writing with only a vague idea of a topic and no clear thesis or outline, just an urge of “I want to write about X.” Sometimes I end up in unexpected places…like Voyager 1, which you should know that I love and which also has a pen/ink connection.