The Lost Art of Pen and Paper

It is depressing to shop in almost any university bookstore for a decent fountain pen or even a nice tablet of paper. The pens are almost entirely the cheapest ballpoints imaginable and the paper is monopolized by cheap spiral notebooks of lined paper that comes close to the quality of toilet paper. Why would students ever enjoying writing, much less want to write, with such terrible tools?

Likewise, if you check out the quality of materials marketed to the parents of school children, the situation is as bad if not worse. Pens, crayons, paper for young children, at such an impressionable age, are absolutely worthless. They would put off any child from wanting to sit down and write or draw or colour. They are just cheap.

Of course, you can find wonderful stationery in a high-end stationary store, or good fountain pens in specialised, boutique pen shops and some department stores, but you have to look. Clearly, the lion’s share of materials marketed to students of all ages is pitiful.


Organizations provide another example of the race for the bottom. Why would any organization think for a moment that giving someone a cheap pen with the organization’s name and logo on it would be a good idea. It just creates an association of the organization with such low quality junk – trinkets. They should have their logo or mascot on a beautifully crafted pen or on stationery that demonstrates that the organization stands for quality. Of course, then they couldn’t afford to give away hundreds of these quality tools. So perhaps it is this pricing issue that often pushes this technology to the bottom. Unthinking and cheap organizations and cheap households who don’t know better, buy cheap writing tools. I’ve been guilty myself of exposing my children to the junk on the list of supplies that parents dutifully purchase for school.

So when parents and educators wring their hands about kids shifting to computers and mobile phone texting and other electronic tools for writing, they should consider the fact that it is not simply the ease and attractions of the electronic, but the difficulty and unattractive options in pen and paper. They bought into this downward spiral of writing.

Any parent should feel guilty if they don’t spend more to get their child excellent pens, beautiful paper, wonderful books. They are expensive, but there is no comparison between writing with a great fountain pen and a cheap or even an expensive ballpoint pen. The ballpoint must have been seen as a technological marvel at its inception, and a means to avoid leaking pens, and ink stained pockets. But it is absolutely inferior as a tool to write with.

Of course, you cannot write with a fountain pen on the cheap paper sold to students – ink will run through several layers of paper given the absorbency of this crap paper the students are sold. So you must also get good paper and good tablets, such as the ‘moleskine’ notebooks, which are excellent.

Well, you might ask, why do parents and students buy poor technologies, when far better pens and paper exist. It can only be cost. Another part of the explanation must reside in the fact that quality pens and paper have disappeared to the extent that many parents and students don’t even think of using them. A fountain pen might as well be a quill pen. It is viewed by many as just as antiquated. Well, a fountain pen is a real advance on the quill pen. But often when someone sees me using my fountain pen, they are likely to ask about it as if I am driving an antique car down the street. Fountain pens continue to improve and there is a diverse array to choose from now, before the technology is completely lost.

So before your children are completely corrupted by being force-sold terrible writing tools, buy them a fountain pen they like – let them try them out – and a variety of good paper. The future is not one medium of communication, but the use of multiple media that will include handwriting. If you or your children lose the art of writing with pen and paper, it is not simply due to the rise of the computer age, but also to the decline of the written word, and the neglect of the tools for proper, civilized writing with a good pen and good paper.

In case you think my rant is unjustified, look for a really nice pen and excellent paper when you next go to a store catering to students. Let me know if I’m wrong. I hope I am, as my impressions do not bode well for the future of writing. I use the Internet and related computer-based tools as much as most people – probably more, but I still find wonder in writing.

4 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Pen and Paper

  1. A few years ago I took up letter writing. One of the first things I discovered was how extraordinarily difficult it is to find good letter writing stationary. Even so-called stationary stores often offer little more than a collection of fancy thank you cards. Now whenever I find any stationary sets I buy several boxes for fear that I will not see its likes again. I also learned the simple joy of sealing my letters with a wax seal.

  2. Dr. Dutton,

    I grew up and went to school in Pakistan. And even to this day, schools require students to use a proper fountain pen. No ball-point pens allowed. One thing I keenly remember about the school days is mixing of black and blue inks to create a unique ink colour. That was always fun. And I have heard that practice still exists among the students. And after completing each grade successfully, students expect to receive a new and better fountain pen from their parents. Thus each student ending up with a collection of fountain pens by the time they completed their high school.


    • What a great policy. Many schools in England have required students, including my daughters, to use a fountain pen, but I am not sure if this policy remains in place.

Comments are most welcome