Every day I receive and send ethereal sacks full of ‘email’ (the very word sticks in my craw: it so denigrates French enamel). In days of yore I would have been considered a man of letters, and would have welcomed the duty of daily correspondence; but since everyone sends electronic communications in large quantities the distinction seems to have been lost, and I confess that I find such e-pistles a chore. A hand-written letter could never have been considered ‘junk’, but I am afraid that many of my well-intentioned missives now end up being lost in, or fetched from, invidious ‘spam’ folders. I have never had a close relationship with processed ‘meat’, and resent being implicated by association. Opening an email is to opening a letter what buying a book online is to buying a book in a shop. It lacks the richness of experience: the simple sensual pleasures of touch and smell; it lacks a sense of personal connection.
I have tried to write letters, but in vain. Those I have sent are met with thanks or response by email, which rather short-circuits the intention. To keep my hand in – and everyone should, by the way; penmanship is a sophisticated art that used to be taught in schools – I write with a pen whenever I can. Professional writings, I admit, begin life in some hideous word-processing software (has anybody else noticed that Microsoft has appropriated the abbreviation for manuscript?), but all the editing – all the writerly work – takes place on paper, with pen and ink. The crossings-out map processes of thought otherwise eliminated by the backspace key. I annotate the books I own. Some would no doubt argue that this is a mortal sin, but I find the marginalia of others fascinating, and leave my own marks just in case some future researcher ever thinks me interesting enough to study! Besides, I have always found my notes to be interesting reminders of past cogitations: they are autobiographical in the most surprising ways. And I scribble bits and pieces, these thoughts for example, in a timeless black jotter.
People have forgotten – those a little younger than I never have known – about the smell of ink. It really does imbue the written word with a certain je ne sais quoi. A good pen (do not trouble me with ballpoints) puts one in touch with the elegant tool use of our most literate forebears. And, unlike the altogether temporary tools that comprise our computing arsenals, it will last forever if properly maintained. I had the great fortune of receiving mine (pictured) as a gift, and I could hardly think of anything better. Yet even if you are not so lucky, I would encourage the investment: it will put you in touch with yourself in such a way that your computer never could. These days the white-collar proof of labour, not to mention its malingering excuse, is RSI of the wrist. Such effete complaints would truly have shocked and appalled the clerks of yesteryear. I propose that it is preferable, and never unbecoming, for a man accidentally to betray his labour by the ink on his hands. An inky finger, after all, suggests an active mind.
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