by Sean Kunath
Should you use fountain pens? This may seem like a rather straight-forward question with an answer decidedly in the negative, but I hope to make the redeeming argument for this relic of a bygone era by demonstrating its superior functionality and formality.
In the past, when I have extolled the virtues of the fountain pen to some one or other person, the most common retort is: “How is a fountain pen better than a regular ballpoint, which is just the fraction of the cost?” My answer to this question falls into two categories: utility and form.
In terms of utility, a fountain pen beats out a regular ballpoint pen in a variety of ways. Its chief benefit is that it exerts less strain on the hand in the course of writing. When you use a ballpoint pen, you have to use a good deal of pressure for the ink to mark the paper with a consistent line. Not only that, but you have to hold it at a severe angle to the paper in order for the ink to flow with gravity and for the ball to interface properly with the paper. Since the ink feeds through fountain pens using both gravity and capillary action (and the ink is so much less viscous than ballpoint ink), you do not need to press nearly as hard or hold the pen nearly as upright. This shallow angle and low-pressure allows the writer to write for longer since he is straining his hand so much less. Furthermore, fountain pens are more intuitive, giving you sensitive feedback from the paper so that you can adjust your grip for smooth writing.
Fountain pens also provide the user with a greater retinue of color options than a traditional ballpoint. At the store, the most widely available colors are black, blue, red, and green. If you want to find a wider array, you’d have to scour the Internet or an art store. Consider, then, Diamine Inks, an English company that has manufactured fountain pen ink for over 150 years and offers over a hundred different colors for your pens. Other companies make their own inks as well, and each company’s unique recipes can result in a single color having a plethora of shades. This abundance of colors allows for a personal fine-tuning that is unheard of with ballpoint pens. Furthermore, these inks extend the usefulness of the fountain pen indefinitely. The refillable nature of fountain pens allows for one pen to use a variety of colors, and if you run out of ink, you simply buy a new bottle, whereas you’d typically discard a ballpoint pen (if you don’t lose it first). This contributes to a long life with proper maintenance.
Fountain pens also exceed ballpoints in a variety of non-utilitarian ways. For instance, ballpoints, being cheaply and quickly made, are uniform. Fountain pens (while still manufactured in large quantities) possess an undeniable aesthetic that sets them apart. Furthermore, each fountain pen can be uniquely modified for the pleasure of its specific user, making it a much more personal item than a ballpoint. The wide variety of body types, weights, feeds, and nibs allows for making a very personal choice in a fountain pen that is simply not available to someone using a ballpoint pen. In the end, fountain pens elevate our writing to something solemn and grand. Even a small doodle takes on a new depth when made with a fountain pen.
However, in all fairness, it should be noted that fountain pens do have their drawbacks. They require more upkeep than a cheap ballpoint. The water-based ink takes longer to dry, smears easily, and is susceptible to running if gotten wet. A fountain pen is more delicate and prone to damage than a ballpoint pen. Because they last much longer than ballpoints, they tend to be more expensive. Finally, fountain pens are not as portable as ballpoints since they leak and stain more easily than ballpoints.
In the end, I exhort you to own at least one fountain pen. I believe that you will be able to recognize a sizable difference in quality and comfort from a standard ballpoint. And while fountain pens can run into the hundreds, you can find very affordable ones for $15 from Pilot.
Sean Kunath is a senior studying Latin.
Image courtesy Elena Creed.