In the silent watches of the night, I wonder: What development sealed the West's doom? The regicide of Charles I? Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station? The answer, I think, is the invention of the ball point pen.
But here, near the White House, is a redoubt of correct thinking -- Fahrney's pen store, headquarters of the counterrevolution in favor of fountain pens. Fahrney's will sell you a ball point, but in an austere, deprecating manner.
The grandeur that was Rome included a bronze instrument resembling a fountain pen, found in the ruins of Pompeii. But the sack of Rome by the Goths (looters probably looking for ball points) put pens in decline until (I am simplifying a bit) 1884. Then Lewis Waterman, an insurance salesman, lost a large commission when a leaky pen ruined a contract. "Drats!" he said, and invented the fountain pen.
With pens, as with most things, war has been a transforming force. Sales of fountain pens soared during World War I, the result of folks writing to the boys over there. But a surging sea of barbarism was about to submerge the spires and battlements of civilization because back in 1888 a sinister person named John Loud had got a patent for a ball point pen.
Ball points did not get rolling until 1935 when a Hungarian in Argentina perfected a way of grinding an ink-dispensing ball. Then -- war, again -- the British got interested in ball points because pilots were having trouble writing at high altitudes. One thing led to another, and then to Gimbles. There, on Oct. 29, 1945, a day that will live in infamy, 10,000 ball point pens were sold at $12.50, serious money back then. Twenty-seven customers fainted. One would like to think they were overcome with shame.
At first, manufacturers boasted that ball points could write under water. They were just the thing for a Thoreau who wanted to write in, rather than about, Walden pond. Later, the pitch was refined: "Ball points write through butter!" But who writes sonnets on toast?
When, 5,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians said, "Hey, let's invent writing so we can have more than an oral tradition," they had no idea their bright idea would be so faint by 1985 A.D. Writing may be on the way out. We are inundated by nonliterate forms of communication. People receive most of their information (if such it can be called) through their ears, or through flickering pictures presented to their staring eyes. Nonreaders are mere receptacles, passively ingesting sounds and sights, avoiding the demands of the active and complicated skill of reading. Reading and writing flourish and languish together.
One reason letter-writing is a dying art and one reason most people consider any sort of writing a chore is that they have never known the physical pleasure, the tactile satisfaction, of a smoothly flowing pen. They have spent their lives pushing ball points across paper, which is like pushing a primitive plow through soggy loam.
When civilization is in steep decline, even good things, like today's increasing sales of fountain pens, happen for dismal reasons. The Mont Blanc Diplomat, an exquisite instrument, suddenly is, like the BMW automobile, another adults' toy from Germany. A salesman at a tony Fifth Avenue shop explains why the shop sells pens but not ink: "Our customers aren't interested in ink."
It is a sacrilege to treat a great pen as a mere ornament. I shall never forget my sense of desolation when my first Diplomat was stolen at the 1980 Democratic Convention (where, of course, private property was not safe). I immediately called Fahrney's.
Fahrney's knows that pens are more than mere property. The store got started as a pen hospital, performing bladderectomies. The Fahrney's Franciscan staff is trained to be gentle when telling someone that his pen is in terminal condition. That is one reason why, just as lovers of outdoor gear make pilgrimages to the L. L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, pen fanciers trek to Fahrney's as to a shrine.
Defenders of ball points say such pens are necessary for the functioning of the modern world -- a perverse defense. They say that ball points, which, unlike fountain pens, can be pressed as hard as a spade, are needed for filling out credit-card chits and the forms-in-triplicate that are bureaucracy's blood. Having heard that defense of ball points, the prosecution rests.
Although ball points ruin penmanship, not even the best fountain pen can fix my scrawl. I am like Joseph Epstein, literary critic and penophile, who says that his handwriting on fine stationery would be like chili on Limoges china. But Epstein, a man of intellectual dash, has had a sublime thought. There are Chris Evert- Lloyd tennis racquets and Jack Nicklaus golf clubs and Pete Rose bats. Why not autograph- model pens? Imagine a George Eliot model fountain pen. Be still my heart.