Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021
AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)
But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that.
One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context.
The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.
Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.
I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).
So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?).
Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth.
When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.
When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner.
When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.
When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.
When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.
Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.