Tools of the Trade: the Pen, the Page, and the Cannibal Pencil

It is tempting to think that just any paper will do when taking notes or writing rough drafts, and technically that’s true. I have any number of paper scraps, dirty napkins, and tattered dollar store notebooks covered in scribbles. These things serve a basic function, same as ballpoint pens sold ten for a dollar or candy bar wrapper condoms.

Part of writing though is enjoying the medium. Typing on a computer occupies much of any modern writer’s time, but scratching away with a pen can be an almost meditative pursuit. Handwriting is a cognitive process that engages our brains differently from typing. There is a tactile experience in handling the pen and feeling the paper beneath your hand that leaves the writer more impressionable to his environment. We can see our mistakes crossed out on the paper in front of us, our doodles, and a typeface font that is distinctly our own. The handwritten page reflects the writer outside of the parameters of a machine.

But writing is still going to feel more like a chore, if not torture, if you are using the Bic Round Sticks and Papermate Black Cap pens that you’ve been stealing from work all of these years. Some notebooks do a better job of wicking the sweat from your palms than accepting ink from a pen. The pages tear apart like tissue, or your writing bleeds through, rendering your thoughts on the reverse page into gobbledygook.

Finding good tools turns the process of writing into its own artful craft.

pens_redandblackI have been particularly thrilled with the Black n’ Red notebooks that I stumbled onto in a big box store clearance display. They are produced by Hamelin, a subsidiary of Oxford, and distributed in the United States by Mead. The 24# (90gsm) “Optik Paper” is a pleasure to write on. It sops up ink faster than a diaper drinks urine, and the satin finish manages to be smooth to the touch without interfering with penmanship. The liberal stream of ink from my fountain pen dries swiftly with little feathering or bleed through. The ones that I have are wire-bound with a polypro cover and elastic band, which is good for durability, but Hamelin also produces a hardbound line for a classier look. This may be my new notebook of choice, at least if I can keep finding them at a suitable discount, as the Mead bonded leather journals that I previously enjoyed no longer seem to be in production.

pens_kurutogaFor an automatic pencil, the Uni-ball Kuru Toga is quite possibly the best that I have ever used in my life, and I only say “quite possibly” because I have used nothing else ever since I bought one. I like how it looks, enjoy how it feels in my hand, and I have yet to have a pencil lead break while writing with one of these. The sales copy is no jive. “The Uni-Ball Kuru Toga mechanical pencil has an exclusive mechanism that rotates to keep a continuously sharp point, prevent lead breakage, and reduce dull spots in the lead to improve precision and clarity. Ideal for intricate writing, the Kuru Toga contains Uni-Ball’s Diamond Infused Lead, which resists breakage and is stronger than competing leads.”

The pencil’s name is perfectly clever and apt in Japanese (クル トガ), but “Kuru Toga” seems positively gruesome from a Western perspective. We all know that togas were the garments of ancient Rome, right? Well, kuru is a very rare type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that people get from eating other people’s brains — or more simply put, it is mad cow disease for cannibals. So . . . cannibal clothing.

pen_jinhaoPens are a big deal for office supply addicts, so it is hard to make a solid recommendation suitable for everyone. If I were to recommend an affordable, quality pen to accompany the aforementioned notebook it would be the Uni-Ball Vision Elite BLX. It writes better than far fancier and more expensive pens, and is a great intermediary between ballpoint and fountain pens. Lately though, I have been enjoying the Jinhao 599, which appears to be modeled after the much pricier Lamy Safari pen. Mostly, I like that with a little patience I can find them in about a dozen different colors on eBay for as little as $1 apiece with free shipping from China. They are as collectable as Pokemon. I’d have them all, but I keep gifting them. Sure, it is not the best, but I’m not a pen snob quite yet. The plastic body has a good heft and a molded grip to ensure that the pen is held properly, which makes for a great introductory fountain pen. The included ink converter is icing on the cake.

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