The Death of the Pen

The Toronto flood last summer caused me to crack open long sealed boxes in my basement that contained articles about which I feel particularly nostalgic and my wife feels particularly indifferent. In one of the damp, musty boxes I came across a collection of papers from my first year of teaching. As I turned the dank pages of my teacher’s journal, I was beamed back through time to a private high school for boys in downtown Boston in the early 1990s. What I found jarred me more that I could have predicted.

Though the passage of time represents barely two decades, what the pages revealed was a quantum leap in some aspects of education, and especially in the practice of hand writing. I paid special attention to a personal information page that I had circulated in the class. Here, mullet-clad boys wrote their names, addresses and phone numbers—no area codes indicated, of course. My first class of sophomores was a list of 36 boys—a ponderous class size that seems inconceivable now. Each boy wrote his name beautifully in a loopy cursive hand likely taught to him in the 1980s by aged nuns in Boston’s parochial schools. Every entry was written, clearly and legibly, in blue or black ink. Not a single email address was offered. Not a single trace of pencil, not one entry printed or in block letters. Let’s leave the Pearl Jam-postered lockers and beepers of the 90s and fast forward to the classroom of today. Of the 65 or so boys I currently teach in five classes, only two write cursively and very few write in ink. Indeed, in this computer-suffused age, even bringing a pen or a pencil to a class is, for most, an afterthought. What’s more is that their hand writing, especially compared to their mulleted predecessors, is ghastly. Pride in one’s hand is virtually dead. The following statement is seldom heard in a modern English class: “Yo, dude, your writing is sick. How’d you learn to write so neat? Wish I could bust out script like that!” Such a pronouncement wouldn’t even cause students to raise their gaze above the top edge of their laptop screens.

What happened to cursive writing? What happened to the pen? Didn’t someone once say that the pen is mightier than the sword? How did conventions in writing change so drastically in so short a time?

The simple fact is that the written communication now occurs digitally. More and more, hand writing is reserved for personal communication, in other words, writing for one’s self. Classrooms starting at the high school level are quickly becoming digitized. Every school that takes on computers seems to push the pen closer to a spot in a museum exhibit. Students who were once accustomed to the permanence and vivid brilliance of ink have now become used to the corrective genius of the backspace key. For fickle writers more afraid than ever of making an error, the pencil is a far safer choice. I took an impromptu survey of boys writing a grade nine English examination in the gym. Of the seventy- eight writers, seventy-three wrote with a pencil while only five used a pen, and two of those were the new erasable ink models. I was also amazed that seventy- five boys printed their responses while only two used cursive writing.

The pen is disappearing from any number of daily functions. Handy chip technology has made signing one’s name in ink at retailers a thing of the past, and many restaurants have stopped handing out sticky ball points in favour of a digital stylus on a hand-held credit machine carried by wait staff. Where young people once dreamed of pen-pals in far off locales, they now text, skype and email at dizzying rates.

Trying to convert teenagers to dropping the pencil in favour of a pen has, in my experience, been akin to asking them to drop their smart phones in favour of a more bucolic pastime like churning butter. Canada has phased out the penny, perhaps the pen is not far behind. How times have changed! As an urban myth has it, in the pen’s glory years NASA spent 240 trillion dollars or so developing an ink based personal encryption device that could be used in space just so they could one-up the Russians who preferred using a pencil.

Humanity’s love affair with the pen is well-founded. For centuries the pen has given us stories, furnished us with laws, lodged our complaints, facilitated our communication with loved ones and helped us perform emergency tracheotomies on each other. This handy device was not the sole investment of humanity either. Shakespeare, it is said, kept a servile flock of geese at his back door waiting to sacrifice their plumes for Romeo and Juliet, Shylock, and for the taming of shrews. Their naps assisted in the recording of 884,647 words in thirty-eight plays. Thousands of octopuses and squids have laid down their lives that we could write scripture, poems, histories, epics and love letters.

Laptops and tablets and pencils aside, perhaps nothing is sounding the death knell of the pen louder, ironically, that the increase in sales of the fountain pen. In 2012, BBC News Magazine reported an increase of ten percent in fountain pen sales from major vendors. I myself, use a fountain pen, an Esterbrook with an italic nib and a handy little lever pump for sucking up chic green ink that I buy from a supplier in France. This pen was manufactured in the 1940s. It was considered “new old stock” sitting around in its box in a New England warehouse until a friend scooped it up on an auction site. Why do I use this when other sleeker, more modern encryption devices exist? For the same reason the other people flocking to buy fountain pens have—writing with these pens has become more of a novelty than a necessity.

The pen was once said to be mightier than the sword. One thing is for certain, it doesn’t seem to be mightier than the pencil, and sadly, computers are all but ready to administer the pen’s coup de grace.



Robert P. Costanzo

Robert P. Costanzo teaches in the Department of English at Crescent School in Toronto.

Back to Top