From Need to Choice
By Lee Chang-kook
Professor Emeritus at Chung-Ang University
Although I have thrown away several of them, I still have four fountain pens in store at home. Each one has its own sentimental value for me.
Two of them are very expensive ones and of a famous brand ― the nibs of which are made of high carat gold. To my great regret, however, I rarely have occasions to use any of them nowadays.
No longer do I write on paper with a fountain pen. Mostly, I type on the keyboard of my PC connected to my laser printer.
I feel sorry for the fountain pens lying idle at a corner of my desk beside the Internet connection. They are always there as if waiting for my touch.
Once in a while I pick them up one by one, feel them in my hand, fill them with ink, or change cartridges if necessary, scribble something on a piece of paper to test their condition, and put them back in place as before. It has become a sort of ritual for me.
And, as a calligrapher does with a brush, I have time with my fountain pens. Regularly I write some passages on paper with one of my favorites.
It is like athletes who practice to keep up their bodily condition. I feel good when my penmanship goes well and smooth. When not, I spend more time than usual until I feel satisfied.
Recently I added one more to my stockpile of fountain pens. One of my old colleagues presented me with a new fountain pen, also a fairly expensive one with a very well-known brand name.
Knowing that I have a particular fondness for fountain pens, he offered it to me as a present when I met him for lunch. Handing it over to me, he said, ``I don't like to see such a good fountain pen lying unused all the time before me, gathering dust on it.'' Gladly, with many thanks, I accepted it.
There was a time when a fountain pen like this was a treasure. It was a dream to own one. It was the envy of all. For some professional writers, it was a lifelong tool for work to make a livelihood.
It was simply impossible to imagine that anyone would or could ever give away such a useful and valuable piece of property for nothing.
The times have changed. We all know handwriting is disappearing from us, and, along with it, the fountain pen. It began slowly with the spread of typewriters, and the advent of the Internet and e-mail created a seismic shift in the way we write and communicate.
They seem to have tolled the death knell for handwriting as well as the pen. No one writes on paper nowadays by hand with a pen any seriousness. They sit before a PC and strike the keyboard instead. Pencils, biros and fountain pens seem to have all become useless and disappeared. It makes me sad.
But I was wrong in being sad. The other day I dropped in at a stationery shop on campus for the first time in a long while. To my great surprise and delight, the shop was full of good and fine writing instruments ― all sorts of pencils, pens, papers, ink, ― infinitely variegated.
The shop was full of people and the business was thriving. I was perplexed at first, and then, soon, relieved and happy. So long as pencils and pens live on like this, handwriting will remain with us as well, I thought.
With so many colorful and beautiful pencils before my eyes I fell momentarily into recollecting my elementary school days. I always had many pencils, long and short. I sharpened each of them every day with a knife, kept them carefully in a pencil case according to their length.
To lose one by mistake or by theft was a disaster. To open a pencil case full of sharply pointed pencils, neatly arranged; to pick up one and write something in a notebook was more than mere writing. It was a holy act of devotion.
My happiness was doubled when I went to a department store downtown. First of all, I was greatly impressed by the fact that a fairly spacious shop was solely allotted for selling fountain pens at this luxurious department store.
In it, all the famous brands and new models were being displayed so elegantly, even solemnly, that I was afraid to enter. I was very happy to have recognized the brand names of my fountain pens among them, as if meeting some old friends in a quite unexpected place.
Some were priced so high beyond and far above my ability to purchase. I realized there and then that fountain pens, like the luxurious watches, have evolved during my ignorance and neglect from a necessity to a luxury.
The world of luxury goods operates according to an almost perverse logic. The moment technology threatens their obsolescence, the law of elegant vanity or futility kicks in.
So the proliferation of e-mail has produced fabulously high-priced and ultra-luxury fountain pens, turned them into prestigious writing instruments, liberating them from a need to a choice.
The message is: If you buy and use this pen, then you are a rich, cultured and successful person. Heads of state, CEOs, and VIPs sign their official documents and personal letters with this fountain pen.
The history of handwriting goes far back into the history of mankind. It is with civilization itself. Even the cave men wrote, nay, engraved something on the rocks for practical as well as purely aesthetical motives or purposes.
As a habit, custom and culture, it seems to be embedded in human DNA. This particular phenomenon that the market for the prestigious fountain pens is gaining in stature is proof that not only the ancient relics of handwriting perpetuate themselves and die hard, but also evolve into a rare skill and fine art, as we see in calligraphy today.
Lee Chang-kook is an emeritus professor at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.