10 September 2001

"The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not
commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste,
but it is none the  less present as a constraining
norm selectively shaping and  sustaining our sense
of what is beautiful, and guiding our discrimination
with respect to what may legitimately be approved
as beautiful and what may not."
           -Thorstein Veblein

From time to time, I get things delivered to my door that actually influence me to think. Thinking is not a natural or common thing, even though I am almost constantly besieged by what passes for thought in my active mind, and throughout my life, my friends and foes alike have urged the process on me, with only limited success. As a result, those rare occasions when it occurs, I invariably pay attention, never knowing when the next real thinking might occur.

Today's thought arrived courtesy of a fountain pen retailer in New York City, who periodically sends me catalogs of the latest, greatest offerings in the store. The catalogs are miracles of the reproduction technology, in high-resolution, 256-color art, on thick, glossy paper stock over which I greedily, happily run my fingers. The photographs of the products are designed to make pen collectors salivate, and I usually do.

In fact, when I get the newest catalog, I feel like a million bucks, which is what I am sure the retailer would like me to spend on my writing implements. Alas, courtesy of my blasted thinking, things have changed.

For the first time ever, I feel as if I never want to acquire another pen.

I went through all the normal routines. I sat down in my comfy chair with a cup of coffee, prepared to enjoy my favorite fountain pen fantasies. These often take the form of me writing checks for exotic vacation homes, or signing autographs for adoring fans who hold copies of my most recent bestseller in their hands. Occasionally, I write checks for charities, to fund medical research, or to endow universities with chairs. However, the best fantasies are the ones in which the mere sight of the rare, expensive, elegant pen in my hand is enough to make onlookers swoon with envy and admiration. It's a wonderful, harmless way to while away half an hour or so in otherwise hectic, cash-strapped days. I opened the catalog and began my drill. That's when my trouble started.

The Montegrappas, Omases, Auroras, Deltas, Michel Perchins, and Namikis weren't exerting their usual pull on my imagination. The Montblancs, Marlens, Duponts, and Hyseks weren't lifting my spirits. They didn't look like anything I wanted. Worse, the lower-cost pens, Crosses, Parkers, Stipulas, Rotrings, and Pelikans, looked positively uninspired, cheaply made, and junky.

Yes, that's the word for it. Junky, cluttered, squatty, ill-proportioned, and ill-conceived, with scarcely more than lip service to the elements of line, design elegance, and utility. What's worse, the cover pen, which is usually the best one in the catalog, was completely unmemorable, a lump of reddish-ocher celluloid, with brassy trim. I stared in disbelief. It was so unattractive, I wondered why they even bothered to manufacture it. I couldn't imagine myself wanting to write with it.

Things got worse. A couple of pages later, another array of pens on a two-page display. These "commemorative" collections are a fairly common marketing trick for pen manufacturers. The idea is to "theme" the pen collection around a person, an event, or a place that inspires the user to thoughts of greatness. A couple of years ago, there was a rash of "Jubilee 50" pens, in honor of the founding of Israel. Last year, there were African-themed collections in honor of Nelson Mandela. In other years, we have seen pen collections that commemorate Nobel Prize winners, animal rights advocates, humanitarians, scientists, writers, and innovators of all stripes, in all areas of human endeavor.

This year, the pickings are slimmer. The first commemoration was for Alfa Romeo, the second, for Federico Fellini.

For the automobile maker, the catalog offered a rather lengthy paragraph regarding the history and accomplishments of the company in its 1950's heyday. There was a single sentence to describe the construction, materials, and configuration of the pen. There was also a per piece price list, in case the buyer's desire didn't extend to the whole collection. A single red resin-cased pen with sterling trim and a gold-plated nib costs $365. The pen isn't particularly beautiful, though, with all the design effort and tooling expended on the silver Alfa Romeo logo on the cap and barrel. I once owned a 1978 Alfa Romeo GTV. I found myself wondering if the pen would be any more reliable than the car had been.

Even more pretentious in design and presentation was the Fellini "Limited Edition" collection. The catalog blurb announced that only 1920 (no comma) Fountain Pens and Rollerballs will be offered worldwide. I read another lengthy, adjective-laden paragraph explaining the "why" of the collection, including praise for Fellini's contribution to film making, and for his insightful portrayals of Italian life and character. There was also a mention of the fact that Fellini is credited with inventing "neorealism" in motion pictures. I wondered if they were describing "Satyricon," or "La Dolce Vita," with enough weird characters and neorealism in them to fuel years of my fever-dreams and nightmares.

Regardless, the fountain pen itself featured a black resin for the cap and the feeder screw and "pearled" ivory resin for the barrel. The cap accents, which consist of a faint design in the form of a three-frame film clip, are vermeil -- gold-plated sterling silver. The pen costs $525. If the manufacturers sell out their entire inventory, it's worth $1,009,010 for their efforts. In addition, there is a "Special Edition" Limited Edition of 920 pieces. These pens are doubly exclusive, fashioned of "hand-turned" resin. They have actual images from Fellini films etched into the three little vermeil film frames on the cap. There is a "lateral lever" filling system, the control mechanism of which is "plated in platinum." For one of these, though, the collector will have to fork over $1,150, giving the manufacturer $1,068,000 more to add to the bottom line. The Special Edition was even gaudier and worse looking than the Limited Edition.

However, these weren't even the most expensive pens in the catalog. The most expensive pens showed up a page later, courtesy of another venerable manufacturer. These pens are part of a collection honoring Russian Czar Nikolai I, whose claim to fame was the insipid, uninspired rule of the country with the assistance and support of the Boyars. Czar Nikolai I's love of pomp and elegance nearly bankrupted the country, more than once. Apparently, the manufacturer decided the Czarist love for the color green as a signature decorating color was worth pursuing, in the form of a chunky design, malachite resin, and "platinum finish." There are two styles of fountain pen, the "LeGrand" and the "Classique," as well as a matching rollerball, ball point, mechanical pencil, cufflinks, key ring, and money clip. For the less opulent-minded, there is a "discounted" Nikolai I collection in hematite and stainless steel. The malachite collection, should a collector fancy it in its entirety, costs $4,650. The hematite collection, although discounted, still rings in at a hefty $3,820. Remarkably, these are not "Limited Edition" collections, which means the manufacturer probably intends to generate as many of these pens, pencils, and accessories as the market will reasonably bear.

I sat staring at the pages, and the thoughts began to surface, one after another, in quick succession. 

Who in his right mind is going to spend more than $1,000 for a fountain pen that is in no way rare? A fountain pen which has been manufactured expressly for the purpose of appealing to some bizarre sense of entitlement, or affinity with a long-dead, profligate Russian ruler?

It occurred to me I would be certifiably insane if I spent $500 for a single mechanical pencil, or a ball point, unless the pencil was made of solid gold, and then, would I dare risk carrying it about in my pocket? I was struck by how shameless and naked the marketing ploy truly was, with its blatant attempt to appeal to snobbery and elitism. I wondered what exactly they were trying to pull off with the advertisement, and who exactly it was they believed was dumb enough to fall for it?

I wasn't just thinking about the manufacturer, either. I also considered the retailer's part in this questionable display of taste. The greed is rampant, from one end of the process, straight through to the other. In that moment, I realized things have gotten way out of hand in the past decade or so, where pen collecting is concerned.

I think pen collectors and manufacturers should be ashamed of what has happened to what was once a nice little hobby for a few people who have long been in love with writing tools. It's become just another money-grubbing, selfish, and self-aggrandizing way for a lot of people to boast publicly about their own worth. It's ridiculous, when you get right down to it. Who really cares how many pens a person possesses, or where those expensive tools were purchased? Who has any interest at all in the dollar value of a pen, unless it is also a pen that has been used to write a poem, a letter, a prescription that saved a life, a best-selling book, or the memoirs of a person whose grace and genius touched and transformed the world, and the way people think?

The pens in the catalog are all brand new, uninked, unmarked, fresh from the manufacturer factories. 

They don't qualify as works of art, because they are mass-produced. They are as impersonal as the stones in a riverbed. Why, then, are so many people so willing to spend so much money? There is a
threshold of aesthetics and taste, to be sure, but really, is the $1,000 fountain pen going to actually do anything its $10 counterpart won't? The taste is acquired. The aesthetics are what drive up the price.

Thorstein Veblein had a point.

Excuse me. I have a $10 bill in my pocket, burning a hole. I've changed my mind. think I may need a new pen.


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