The Social Life of Ink: Culture, Wonder, and Our Relationship with the Written Word by Ted Bishop has been on my must-read list since it was published a few years ago. I really wanted to like this book as it was written by a local author and it is about a topic I am truly interested in. Unfortunately, his meandering style just didn’t appeal to me. The book seemed an excuse for his travels (funded by his Social Sciences and Humanities Research council grant and aided by having a sabbatical from his job as a professor at the University of Alberta). Often I just give up on books I can’t find any enthusiasm for but I did learn a few things that kept me going. The book is divided into four sections and, to spare you from the dull parts, I will give you an overview of the highlights.
Part 1. The Craft of Ink
In this section, Bishop tells the story of the invention and promotion of the ballpoint pen and, in an only tangentially related episode, an account of his attempt to make printers’ ink. He manages to visit Hungary, Argentina, France, Switzerland, as well as Texas and Utah in the United States to “research” this. It may be that my prior knowledge of this slice of history lessened my interest in reading about it but James Ward managed to tell the story of the ballpoint pen much more succinctly in just one chapter of his book, The Perfection of the Paper Clip, and with considerably more flare. I did learn that Argentina claims the inventor, Lazlo Bíró, as their own (they celebrate his birthday on September 29 as Inventors’ Day) while he is virtually unknown in his country of birth, Hungary. Argentina reminds me of Canada in that way; both countries embrace immigrants that succeed.
Part 2. The Art of Ink
Bishop travels to China and Tibet for this section. Again, it covered a fair bit of ground that I am already familiar with. I did learn something about how Chinese inksticks are made though (the soot mixture is pounded, pressed into molds, dried and then carved).
Part 3. The Spirit of Ink
Uzbekistan is his destination in this section where he saw the world’s oldest Qur’an and discusses Arabic ink and calligraphy. This is the shortest part of the book and the part I know least about. I think Arabic calligraphy is truly beautiful and I would like to learn more about it.
Part 4. A Renaissance of Ink
The travel grant must have run out by this point as he seems to have researched this section by phone. It covered a grab bag of topics including the renewed popularity of fountain pens, specialty inks, tattoos, and teaching cursive writing. One person he interviews is Nathan Tardif of Noodler’s Ink. He came across as a real character. I didn’t know that Noodler’s Ink was as controversial as it seems to be. I have been having problems with the fountain pen I purchased in Mexico earlier this year and thought that was what I got for buying an inexpensive, no-name pen. Now I am wondering if it is the Noodler’s Ink that I use in it that is causing the problems. I gave the pen a thorough washing out before I filled it the last time and it seems to have helped so maybe the ink was clogging it.
If you knew nothing about ink and were looking for a travel memoir through the eyes of a middle-aged white man, The Social Life of Ink might appeal to you. I just wish it had been more about ink and less about the author.