Sunday, in excavating my desk in search of a lost object, I found, not the lost object (that came later) but an unopened envelope that had been buried under the detritus for more than a week, maybe two. In the envelope were notes written by hand, in ink, with a pen on the kind of paper you want to rub softly between your thumb and forefinger, even sniff. It is not the kind of paper that your printer or copying machine spits out.
It’s a small band, those of us who care about paper and fountain pens, but it is large enough to have kept Fahrney’s, which sells both, in business in Washington, DC, for more than eighty years. Of course, eighty years ago there were no ballpoint, felt-tip, roller-ball or any other such pens that I know of. If you needed to use a pen, and most everyone did, it was either a metal-nibbed version of the quill or a fountain pen. The alternative was a pencil, and that was used for arithmetic.
In college I and many others took notes with an Esterbrook, a good, cheap pen that disappeared in an avalanche of Bics some years back. But Fahrney’s didn’t. It adapted to changing times and now is nationally known for its fine pens (at fine prices, one might add) and for its pen doctor, who repairs the precious objects they sell. If you ever visit the shop, you’ll understand what I mean by “precious objects.” It looks a lot more like Tiffany’s than Office Depot and gives off that high-end hush usually reserved for old churches and the salons of purveyors of rare gems.
Many years ago I bought a Mont Blanc there, when it was a small shop and before George Will appeared in Newsweek with one in his pocket, for a small fraction of the price they sell for today. If I remember correctly, it cost me less than forty dollars. I still have it. When I read the note uncovered in my dig, its luxuriously leisurely quality—the pen, the paper, the ink, the hand, and the words, of course—told me that a reply in kind would be only fitting and proper.
So I searched for an appropriate note paper. I found something I’d picked up in Italy when I could afford to go to Italy and buy their papers, which cost an arm and a leg, by the way. The box had never been opened. I must have been operating under the same principle as those women (they were always women; it was not a man’s business) who never used the “good” china because it was too good to use. It’s comparable to keeping the cellophane on the lampshades but a notch or two above on the social ladder.
Boldly I broke the seal, picked up my pen, redolent of the wealth and power I so sorely lack, and responded in kind. I hadn’t written a note like that in years, partly to spare the recipient the pain of my handwriting but also because e-mail and the computer have replaced notes and tangible letters-in-the-hand in my life. I use a pen for condolence notes, of which there have been blessedly few lately, and for writing in my notebooks, nothing else. (I used to use it for signing books but there hasn’t been one of those in a long time. Soon though.)
I call them notebooks because “journal” sounds too grand, too important (and when used as a verb sets my teeth on edge) and they’re more than a “diary.” I associate “diary” with high school girls writing “Dear Diary” in one of those little books that locked. They probably don’t do that any more, texting and tweeting having taken over their world and the concept of privacy a quaint and distant memory.
I got started with my notebooks when the lilting Irish writer and the New Yorker’s “Long-Winded Lady” Maeve Brennan sent me an Eye-Ease National 53-210 notebook the day after lunch with her and Howard Moss, poetry editor at the magazine, in the Algonquin one hot summer day in 1968. “Use it,” she said. The tone was imperative. I took it home, put it on a shelf.
The notebook stared at me, unopened, for a year until at the end of another hot day the following summer I did finally open it and write, with a ball-point pen, I might add. And I’ve been doing it ever since, not every day—there’ve been lapses, some long, some short—but enough days to fill thirty-two of them. (I’ll write about that another time.) I tried but failed to find another Eye-Ease National 53-210. I moved on to other notebooks, and other pens until I found the Mont Blanc, an anachronism, perhaps, but I like it.
I remain grateful to Maeve Brennan for starting me on the notebook thing and to Howard Moss for bringing us together. I’m grateful to Fahrney’s, too, for putting the pen in my hand.