The Social Life of Ink


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.


Elisabet Puts Thread to Paper


I recently came across the word sewist, combining the words “sew” and “artist”, to describe someone creatively sews and thought it was the perfect description of how my sister creates her unique greeting cards (and better than calling her a sewer). In honour of her birthday tomorrow, I am going to share a little bit about her card making.

She started down this path many years ago when she began sewing  attractive and sturdy re-usable shopping bags that she would sell at craft fairs and markets in Quebec where she was living at the time. She soon found she needed to diversify her stock and, keeping with her business’ eco-friendly theme, began making cards that incorporate cast-off bits and pieces like scraps of fabric, maps, old calendars, buttons, and used greeting cards. For that special Elisabet touch, she uses a sewing machine to add a line of stitching. She even makes her own envelopes using brown kraft paper lined with recycled paper. While this never became a big money maker for her, the cards are a great creative outlet and became very popular with her regular customers back in Quebec. They would drop by her house and ask to see “the box”, an antique train case she got at a garage sale that she keeps her cards in.


Her creative process begins when she sees a scrap with fresh eyes. Sometimes something catches her eye and an idea comes, other times she seeks inspiration by tidying up her sewing and craft supplies. Once she has a few ideas, she usually tries to make 5 to 10 at a time. This makes the process more efficient, as does making all the cards the same size. For cards that use fabric, she first spray glues the fabric to stiff paper before cutting to size and then gluing it to the card. The last step is to do the stitching with an old, slow sewing machine with a blunt needle.


Making the envelopes comes next and is enjoyable in its own way but, as this part of the process is repetitive, she recommends listening to the radio while assembling them. As a finishing touch, she uses pinking shears on the flap to give the envelope a paper bag look.

Her customers appreciate the uniqueness of her cards and I know I love receiving them!

If these cards were a person, they would be a loving and creative individual that makes the best of what they have by adding a touch of pizazz to whatever they do, much like my sister herself.

Promotional stationery items


Even though I love special pens and paper, I have to admit a lot of the stationery supplies in my home are actually promotional items. One of my daughters gets so many she told me she’d feel like a chump if she actually paid for these items (James Ward in The Perfection of the Paperclip calls this type of behaviour the “stationery equivalent of freeganism”). Even though she works in the tech sector, she is still given lots of pens and paper. So why are pens and paper still considered a great promotional giveaway item in the digital age? In short, because companies find it works. According to a survey carried out in 2016 by the Promotional Products Association International (alright so it doesn’t appear to be an unbiased source) companies consider promotional items more effective than social media and nearly as effective as all other media. Companies like to supply a useful product and consumers like to get them and use them.  In fact, 81 percent of consumers keep promotional products for more than a year.

So starting with pens, as they seem to be the most popular item to use as a giveaway, here are some of the promotional desk items around our house.

Pens – Only hotels that don’t want you to walk away with their pens and non-profit organizations hand out stick pens. Most of the time, I don’t even pick them up which is why I don’t have a reminder of my fabulous stay at the Ramada in Grand Forks, British Columbia.


Not only do most companies do better than stick pens, it seems just offering a pen is not enough. Many of the pens have a highlighter at one end, and one highlighter I have, has sticky flags on the end.


I even have a pen with hand sanitizer on the end which seems a bit odd but I guess it falls into the category of handy things to have in your bag.


Occasionally you can find something really different like the APEGA pen where when you click on the end, it lights up in a rainbow display of colours like a rave glow stick (the photos don’t do it justice, it really flickers and glows). This pen is from a few years ago when oil and gas prices were higher so the party is pretty much over for them now but still, what were you thinking Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta?  




Pencils – It seems pencil giveaways are mainly aimed at kids but I do have a nifty little set that comes with two recycled pencils, a recycled pen, and a little wooden sharpener. One of the pencils is a bit shorter in order for it all to fit into the cylindrical cardboard container (all made in China). It gives off an eco-friendly vibe that is a bit jarring for a mining company.


Paper – Paper is also a frequent giveaway mainly as shopping lists or pads of post-it notes but I do have a couple of nice promotional journals.  The paper in the one is creamy and surprisingly good quality. I also like the built-in ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and the pocket on the inside back cover. you have impressed me as a classy company, too bad your website doesn’t give the same impression.


The Resolver journal is not quite as good quality but not bad and both of them get bonus points for keeping the branding somewhat subtle. Both journals have nicely rounded corners but I prefer a binding that allows the journal to lie flatter when opened than either of these journals.


It seems promotional pens and paper are going to be given away for years to come.

If a promotional item was a person they would be a bit brash with a “remember me, remember me” kind of attitude. Not really a close friend but you still hang around with them because they are useful.

Pencil Sharpeners


Ever since I started thinking about pencils earlier this summer, pencil related topics keep occurring to me. And as to write with a broken pencil is pointless, what every pencil lover needs is a pencil sharpener.

Pencil sharpeners come in all shapes and sizes and are a popular novelty item but they don’t all sharpen equally well. I pitted a classic hand-crank sharpener against a small single blade wedge sharpener using two identical unsharpened 2H pencils.

Just a note about these vintage pencils, they are called Pedigree by Empire and were made in Canada. The Empire Pencil Company was founded in 1900 and in 1986 purchased the Berol Corporation. It seems odd that you can still buy Berol pencils but it seems they have dropped the Empire brand.

Now for the sharpen-off. First up is the Staedtler 510 27 single hole wedge sharpener. This small metal sharpener was made in Germany and according to the company website is “for standard-sized blacklead pencils up to 8.2 mm with a sharpening angle of 23° for clear and accurate lines”. I like how this sharpener has fluted indents along the side for ergonomic gripping. In my opinion, it is the little design features that really elevate humble tools. It took 39.92 seconds to sharpen the pencil with this sharpener. It created a sharpened point 2.5 cm long and a lovely ruffle shaving.

20170729_121939 20170820_142920

Next up is the Giant Type 3A Cutter Assembly made by the mysterious Apsco Products (Canada) Ltd. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. While there is still an Apsco company in Scarborough, I couldn’t find out anything about it. It seems like there were many Apsco Giant pencil sharpeners made, some labelled Chicago, others with Los Angeles, California or Rockford, Illinois. This single-burr hand-crank sharpener was found in the basement of a 1950’s era house and would be familiar to many as the type of pencil sharpener attached to classroom walls. It took only 12.75 seconds to sharpen the pencil and left a much longer point (over 4 cm) and a pile of sawdust.

20170820_141949 20170820_141643

I carried out this experiment with my sister’s assistance in her basement. She had a strong preference for the pencil sharpened with the hand-crank sharpener (well she would, wouldn’t she, it was her sharpener). I am not as convinced of its superiority. The portability and simplicity of the Staedtler is appealing to me and I can’t really discern a difference in writing between the two pencils.


If you truly want to learn more about pencil sharpening I suggest you read How to Sharpen Pencils:  A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, With Illustrations Showing Current Practice by David Rees. It may seem hard to imagine how you can stretch this topic into an entire book and even the author seems to be reaching a bit by the end. If you are little bit interested but don’t really want to read the book you can watch a short film of him expounding on artisanal pencil sharpening (CLICK HERE). Please note that what he calls a #2 pencil is what the rest of the world calls a HB. Make sure you watch right to the end of the credits where he expresses my opinion on mechanical pencils perfectly. According to the CBC, he gave up his pencil sharpening business over a year ago. (April 2016)

If a pencil sharpener was a person, they wouldn’t have any tolerance for either personal sloppiness or fuzzy thinking. They would get right to the point and demand you shape up immediately.