Nabokov and Indelible Pencils

The most recent collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov, incorporating thirteen new stories, was published in 2008 to great fanfare. I’m just getting around to reading it now, because it usually takes me about ten years to catch up with major literary events; plus, I can’t exactly say I was a fan of this particular writer up till now. We’ll see.

Nabokov is widely known as having been a Blackwing enthusiast, and indeed his lifespan seems to have coincided with the glory days of the pencil in general. The humble instrument makes several appearances in his fiction, including the now almost-defunct indelible pencil. The following is from the short story “Bachmann,” about an egotistical musical genius of that name:

Bachmann was sitting on her bed, barefoot and in a nightshirt, with a plaid blanket humped over his shoulders. He was drumming with two fingers on the marble top of the night table, while using his other hand to make dots on a sheet of music paper with an indelible pencil.

After a memorable night, during which Bachmann’s mistress succumbs to a fatal illness, his agent inspects the aftermath:

On the night table Sack found a crumpled sheet of music paper, but no one was able to decipher the violet dots of music scattered over it.

I wonder how many modern readers will understand why the markings are “violet”? (And here I’m thankful for my crash course in pencil history over the past few years!) For my part I am curious whether Bachmann used a violet-colored indelible pencil, or used a moistened graphite one. I’d wager the latter – you’re not supposed to suck on indelible pencils because the aniline dye is poisonous, but I wouldn’t put it past any deranged artists.

(If you are unfamiliar with indelible/copying/ink pencils, you can start here, at Pencil Talk.)

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Tokyu Hands

Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku is a fun place. Occupying seven floors off a corner of Takashimaya Times Square, it sells chic home supplies and lifestyle products, hard-to-find curiosities and sometimes just plain weird stuff. Because the store’s selection overall is so idiosyncratic, I had trouble thinking of it as a serious stationer up till now, since I’ve bought furniture and drapes there as well as pens and notebooks in the past. But to my surprise, it was one of five major stationery stores featured in the Staedtler podcast (of course, this list is far from objective, as it probably reflects Staedtler Japan’s preferences circa 2014-2015 and especially its aim at that time of promoting its new Premium line of fountain pens, but I do think that the list has a point). This particular branch is located in one of Tokyo’s prime commercial districts, with a trendy clientele that is neither too young nor too old, and is therefore an outstanding example of the well-rounded and well-stocked general stationer. (Ito-ya, incidentally, has moved away from this department-store-style stock-everything model.) It also issues Hands-only limited editions in partnership with stationery brands from time to time; actually, this kind of thing seems obligatory for any stationer worth its salt, in this town.

I got my first Lihit Lab product there: a bag from the “Smart Fit” line that can fit in a couple of notebooks and some pens, plus maybe a diary or small notepad. The material is Cordura, and this really makes a difference – it looks and feels so much nicer. The strap is sold separately.

Some special pencils and erasers from Hands: the Japan-only Staedtler White HB (a kind of mark sheet pencil – “Mars, the god of war, will lead you to victory!”), a special-edition Hinodewashi Matomaru-kun eraser that will help you pass your exams, and a Seed Radar 2017 limited edition. It’s my first proper Seed eraser (though I probably used it already, in other OEM-ed incarnations). The Thermo-pencils were chosen by my son.

The denim book cover on the left is another trophy from Hands. The one on the right is from Ito-ya and will be discussed in the next post.

And last but not least, some seasonal postcards from Kyukyodo. I love the way Japanese stationers still stock letter-writing paper and postcards; a lot of it is seasonal, and the designs and colors are a joy to behold.

I’m going to wrap up my Tokyo report with a final post on Ito-ya sometime soon. I didn’t realize it had been almost a month since I last posted! Hopefully the next one isn’t going to take as long.

Ippitsu-sen (Again), at Maruzen

Here are some new additions to my stash of Ippitsu-sen. (See my previous post for an introduction to this particular kind of Japanese correspondence paper.)

There was one more pattern to complete the quartet, which I didn’t buy. (Just so you know.) I got these at Maruzen, which, had I not listened to the Staedtler Japan Radio podcast from several years ago, I would surely have left out of my to-visit list. You see, even though I was reasonably familiar with Tokyo and its stationers, I had never felt the need to distinguish one well-stocked store from another (with the possible exception of Ito-ya). I lived along the Seibu line so I went to Loft a lot, and didn’t care if my pens and notebooks came from more general chains or department stores. But listening to the podcast, I realized that there was a hierarchy of sorts among the stationers, reflecting the history and breadth of each. The podcast featured five stores in the latter half of its season: Tokyu Hands (a DIY lifestyle store, Shinjuku branch), Mitsukoshi (a department store, Nihonbashi branch), Sekaido (an art supply store in Shinjuku), Ito-ya (stationer extraordinaire in Ginza), and Maruzen (Marunouchi main store).

Now, the thing about Maruzen is that it is first and foremost a bookstore, albeit with a respectable stationery section. I’d visited one of their branches once or twice in the past but saw nothing to mark it out as either a bookstore or stationer at that time. But the podcast informed me that this venerable institution was founded 150 years ago in Yokohama, and played a pioneering role in introducing Western culture to Japan: it was long known for its selection of Western books, and was the first to import fountain pens (Onoto, 1907). Literary figures of the time routinely mentioned visiting the store in their writings. The Marunouchi main store now occupies four stories in a glittering high-rise near Tokyo Station, in the heart of Tokyo’s old business district; they say 100,000 people pass by the building daily, of which 4,000 visit the stationery section on the fourth floor. So naturally the Maruzen store stocks more upscale goods designed to appeal to grownups (and businesspeople in particular). The stationery section was smaller than I expected, but it did feature some notable items. The fountain pen desk was extensive and tastefully done. I can’t resist adding a couple more pics:

Coming back to the Ippitsu-sen: isn’t it wonderful that there are products that just assume stationery nerds like us exist, who love pens and pencils and even rulers, and would snap these up in a heartbeat? By the way here’s another, more traditionally summer-y theme featuring goldfish.

Last but not least, here are two other items I got from Maruzen: a triangular scale from Staedtler Japan, and a Tombow Mono One AirTouch. The scale was specifically mentioned in the podcast, so I was able to recognize it when I saw it. There were other variations, longer, shorter (10 cm!), for architects, for surveyors. It’s a very well-made, delightful object. I hadn’t planned on getting the AirTouch, even though the original Mono One was celebrating its tenth anniversary and there was a display with the Ones in all the colors of the rainbow in all of the stores I visited, but then Maruzen had an eraser testing station and I fell for it. Not bad at all!

Pencils From Down Under

Greetings, everyone! I have been away all July and have just come back to Montevideo. The summer was hot, humid, and inspiring; we visited family, we visited lots of hospitals and got all fixed up, and we made a long-overdue nostalgic trip to Tokyo. But before recounting my stationery adventures I must start with what I came across on the long long flight home.

This incredible shot is from the Australian film Red Dog: True Blue (2016). A twelve-year-old boy is sent to live with his grandfather, near Pilbara (scorched red earth, bush and seemingly not much else), after his father dies and his mother is committed to an institution, where he befriends a very special dog. I know, it’s the usual heartwarming doggie story, and nothing about it suggested it would reach sublime heights moments later with a shot of a vintage Staedtler tin and a Möbius+Ruppert pencil sharpener.

This assortment of stationery is what Mick needs in order to do his “correspondence sets” via radio instead of attending a normal school. I think the movie is set in the late 60’s, judging from various clues such as women’s dress, one character’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco is supposed to have “just happened.” In that case we may conclude that the pencil case is a hand-me-down from his grandpa, since that particular Mars head was used until the 50’s; the sharpener is more of a stretch because Gunther (@Lexikaliker) informs me that this particular model, the 602, was introduced around 1970.

But never mind the dates – it’s simply a beautiful shot. Kudos to the good work from Down Under!

Staedtler Mars Duralar and Dynagraph 

Here are some photographs to complement Gunther’s post on the Mars Duralar @Lexikaliker. I was thrilled to find that the pencil Yves Saint Laurent was holding in his hand looked exactly like the Duralar I discovered many years ago in Montreal! However, as the Duralar is specifically intended for use on drafting film, it is not very pleasant to use on paper (it drags horribly). So what exactly is YSL doing with this pencil? 😅

And then here is its successor, the Dynagraph. Thanks to Gunther’s post I now know that the lesser numbers on both the Duralar and the Dynagraph denote the softer grades.

In the Dynagraph there is an interesting logo saying “PROFILM”, which I thought was an industry designation of some sort at first but turns out to have been a trademark filed by Staedtler for its own pencils.

For a more in-depth look at how the Dynagraph performs, please refer to this classic article at Pencil Talk.

Stenographic Pencils, Continued

One of the most commonly employed search terms that lead readers to this blog concern stenographic pencils and their use. I’ve noticed that people who take the plunge into pencils almost always go through this stage: steno pencils are cool, unusual, rare but still available, just about (the Staedtler Stenofix is gone but Faber-Castell still makes the 9008). My own interest in them has waxed and waned, but all throughout, I had the niggling sense that I hadn’t really understood them: why certain specimens were hard and some soft (how were they supposed to be, hard or soft?), why they were offered in the limited but confusing range from HB to 2B, and whether round pencils really were better for the job. The answers were outlined to me early on, back when I first talked about stenos, but it wasn’t until recently that the penny really, finally dropped.

In an Eberhard Faber catalog from 1923, I came across the classification: firm leads for Gregg users, softer leads for Pitman. So the answer to all my questions was in fact really simple: it depended on what system you used. It’s just that it took me a long time to visualize the differences between the two systems and how they would translate into different needs without actually learning shorthand myself.

The picture became much clearer after I understood that the Pitman system, popular in Europe, consists of geometric shapes and lines of thin or bold strokes. This means that symbols are made up of (to grossly generalize) circles and parts of circles and straight, angular lines. (The same shape can denote different sounds depending on the thickness of the stroke.) In contrast, its American rival, the Gregg, is based on the ellipse, which is the same shape that forms the basis of cursive penmanship, and employs the same curvilinear motion to propel it forward. As John Robert Gregg himself explains in Basic Principles of Gregg Shorthand:

The fundamental difference between geometric [i.e. Pitman] shorthand and Gregg shorthand is this: Geometric shorthand is based on the circle and its segments; Gregg is based on the ellipse, or oval.

As geometric shorthand is based on the circle, its characters are supposed to be drawn with geometric precision, and are struck in all directions. The characters, being struck in all directions, necessitate continual change in the position of the hand while writing.

As Gregg Shorthand is based on the ellipse or oval, it is written with a uniform slope, as in longhand. Its characters are, therefore, familiar and natural to the hand, and like longhand do not require a change in the position of the hand while writing.

This being the almighty Oval.

For us, perhaps the most relevant fact that can be gleaned from this is that Pitman users have to re-learn how to hold a pen or pencil. Gregg says Isaac Pitman said in his Manual:

The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease.

In other words, Pitman users “draw”(I would even say “sketch”) the characters. I once sat next to a former professional stenographer at a calligraphy workshop (she took notes in what I now realize was Pitman), and she told me that her teacher always made sure that the students held their pencils lightly enough so that the teacher could pull the pencils out from their grip at any time without resistance.

While the grip is feather-light, pressure is applied from time to time to produce thicker strokes, so softer pencils are necessary. I wondered whether the soft tips might not dull quickly, but on second thought the stenographer would be “shading” only intermittently, so the tip probably won’t wear down as fast as a normal soft pencil would. (In any case the stenographer can’t press down too hard, since it will only slow her down.)

In contrast to Pitman, Gregg users “write.” The symbols are joined together more, there is no line variation, and I imagine a page of Gregg would look a lot more like normal longhand writing than a page of Pitman. It’s interesting, though, how much the system’s founder emphasizes its “easy” and “natural” qualities, on top of the practical advantages its practitioners enjoy using the same hand and finger positions and the same movements as those of longhand:

It has been said that it is impossible for the human hand to make a perfect circle in rapid writing. On the other hand, elliptic figures are natural and easy to the hand; indeed, the making of an ellipse or oval is one of the first exercises given a child in learning ordinary writing.

This opens up another interesting line of thought. Would longhand still be considered “natural” today? Because although cursive writing has indeed evolved over the centuries in slanted and interconnected form, penmanship is a learned skill, and there has been enough disruption in the past few decades that not even Mr. Gregg would be comfortable declaring the fundamentals of cursive writing to be universally applicable now. I wonder, will the loss of penmanship influence the way pencils are made in any meaningful or noticeable way?

*Many of the steno pencils pictured above come from Gunther’s collection. Thank you, Gunther :)

Staedtler Initium Lignum Fountain Pen Review

This is one of those fountain pen posts I’m trying to keep out of this site, but this time you will forgive me because it features a venerable pencil brand that has made forays into a new market (or, rather, re-entered it): Staedtler’s Premium line, comprising resin, wood, and leather-accented writing instruments. I saw the new lineup for the first time while still in Canada, and was very surprised and pleased to see it; however, I had the not quite favorable impression that they were trying to do too much at once (e.g. everything from ballpoints to $2,000+ collectors’ items) instead of expanding the collection slowly and organically as they learned the ropes. I also felt the aesthetics were vaguely reminiscent of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. The price tag was outlandish: upwards of CAD 200 for a steel-nibbed pen. This particular model, the wood-barrelled Initium Lignum (the only one I considered buying, then or now), still costs CAD 279 (plus 15% tax). I liked the idea, I was a fan of the brand, but for that kind of money I could get myself a proper gold-nibbed pen (or two) from other manufacturers. So I passed on it then, until I got wind of a CultPens sale* that included a free leather-bound Atoma notebook with any Initium pen, so I took the plunge. Pricewise it was now or never.

A new pen, like a drop of water in a desert :)

However, once the euphoria subsided, I was unfortunately reminded of all the other reasons I didn’t buy it back then. It’s not only the price. The pen itself looks very nice, but the balance feels all wrong. It’s a heavy pen, and that by itself is not a huge problem (I have some Waterman heavies that I am quite fond of), but the problem is that that weight is not distributed evenly across the pen but overly concentrated at the nib end. The cap is substantial, too, and all this makes for a very top-heavy pen: it threatens to slip out of your hand when you try to write with it, because the grip section pulls it downwards and there is nothing to counterbalance it at the back. (And no, posting the cap doesn’t work either, because it then threatens to topple over backwards.) Perhaps I tend to grip pens more lightly than other people, but this is because I was told at the beginning of my pen life that I was unwittingly wrecking the soft nib of my Pelikan M300 by pressing down on it too much, and I have had to relearn how to hold a pen since. This is important, as this is precisely one of the advantages of using a fountain pen – it allows you to write for longer without your hand cramping. If a fountain pen forces you to hold it like a ballpoint, something is wrong.

I also should have known better than to buy a pen with a metal grip. I’ve avoided those ever since my experience with the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco; these kind of pens look fabulous but are less than optimal for actual writing, because they are heavy, and they slip. (Come to think of it, I always tend to gravitate towards wood-barrelled pens, but once purchased, they don’t seem to make it into my regular rotation much.) I’m very curious where Staedtler sources its nibs, or whether they make them in-house; this particular nib is smooth enough but can be a bit slippery on paper like Tomoe River. I personally find the nib a bit small given the size of the pen and the price; small nibs, like the one on the Waterman Charleston, make me feel shortchanged, and I believe they write worse too.

Well, this wasn’t a rational purchase. I had tried out the pen in the shop and I knew what was coming. But strangely, inexplicably, I still wanted it, even with all its shortcomings. Brand loyalty is a funny thing: the sight of the logo-engraved cap peeping out of my pen pouch makes me happy, and I am willing to accomodate it, get used to its quirks, and see what good I can coax out of it. Sometimes a pen proves itself better than you initially thought it to be: I didn’t think much of my Kaweco Sport at first, for example, but later on I found that it never dried out, not even for months, which was pretty impressive for a cartridge-use pen in that price range. I’m curious to see what happens with my Initium. As for Staedtler, I do wish they will stay committed to the Premium line, but learn from their mistakes and come up with better models. There must be enough inspiring material in the Staedtler archives for them to make use of in this retro boom!

* This blog is not associated with CultPens in any way. I got to know of this promotion thanks to Matthias @Bleistift – they had the same offer last November.