The Idiot


I recently finished reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman. I had previously read her memoir of her graduate studies in Russian literature, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a thoroughly enjoyable and unusual book so I was looking forward to her first novel. While The Idiot isn’t quite as good as The Possessed, it had many chuckle out loud parts and enough references to writing and writing tools I thought I could discuss the book based on those topics alone.

The protagonist of The Idiot is a first-year university student called Selin. As she wants to be a writer, she spends a fair bit of time writing in her journal so naturally she has an appreciation of good paper. “The mall had a Japanese stationery store, where I bought a new spiral notebook. It had the most supple and creamy paper, and a pink cover decorated with a maroon anthropomorphic bean. The bean had one hand on its hip, and was waving with the other hand. It was a marvelous notebook.” (p. 414) To me, this just sums up the best of Japanese stationery, great paper and the quirkiness of the illustrations.

Early on in the novel, Selin volunteers to be a tutor in a disadvantaged neighbourhood. Her description of the dismal classroom concludes with: “On the table were a sign-in sheet, a dead spider plant, and a dead spider. On a shelf in the closet lay a stack of marbled composition notebooks and a box of unsharpened Ticonderoga pencils.” (p. 63) Hardly the most inspiring supplies but I can just picture it.

As the book takes place in the early 1990s, email was still a new and unfamiliar thing. Selin marvels over the strangeness of being able to see both sides of the correspondence. “Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world. Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of our life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.” (p.4)

I hadn’t really thought about how with traditional letter writing you don’t usually have a copy of your original correspondence (unless of course you used carbon paper). Even emails that are more like conversations than letters, it is odd to have them transcribed and to be able to re-read them. She is wrong about email always being there though. I have no idea what became of old emails I wrote with service providers now long gone. Maybe with cloud storage email is becoming less ephemeral.

Overall, I would recommend this book even though, true to her age, Selin could be a bit tiresome and the ending was not entirely satisfactory.


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.

Tolstoy Put Pen to Paper


I have been culling my book collection and was left with a stack of books I have been meaning to read but haven’t got round to yet. One of these books was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It is a lengthy novel in eight parts so I found it a bit intimidating to start but am really glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is amazing to think it all would have been originally written by hand with a dip pen.

Leo_Tolstoy_Dip_Pens Tolstoy’s desk at his home in Yasnaya Polyana

While there is lots to say about Tolstoy’s insights into relationships and society, this blog is not the place to discuss themes. Instead, I am keeping my comments to the glimpse Anna Karenina gives into the desks of the 1870’s. There were three aspects in particular that really struck me.

First, without phones, texts,or email, they are forever writing to each other. These notes and letters are both about the trivial and the serious. For example in one chapter, Anna’s maid brings a note from Betsy reminding her stop by, “She brought her dress and a note. The note was from Betsy. Betsy was reminding her that this morning Liza Merkalova and Baroness Stolz were to come to her house with their admirers, Kaluzhsky and the old man Stremove, for a game of croquet.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 26). Later on in the chapter, a letter is also the way Anna chooses to tell her husband that she is leaving him, “But first I must write them both. She quickly went into the house, to her sitting room, sat down at her desk, and wrote her husband.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 267).

Anna wasn’t the only one receiving and writing notes. “Countess Lydia Ivanovna ordinarily wrote Alexei Alexandrovich two or three notes a day. She loved this process of communication with him, which had an elegance and mystery that was lacking in her personal dealings.” (Part 5, Chapter 23, p. 471).

Secondly, paper knives show up repeatedly. In the early days of book printing, pages were printed on long strips of paper that were accordion folded and bound into the spine so the reader had to cut the edges of the paper to see the part that was printed on the inside. There is a great explanation of this in The Regency Redingote blog. Paper knives were the special knives that were used to cut the pages and would have been part of any good desk set. They are often mentioned in Anna Karenina. For example, Anna while on a train “out of her handbag took a paper knife and an English novel” (Part 1, Chapter 29, p. 93). She has trouble concentrating so ends up fidgeting with it, “She ran the paper knife across the glass, then pressed its smooth cold surface to her cheek” (p. 94).

Paper knives also seemed to be a popular tourist item. When Prince Shcherbatsky joined his family after a trip to Baden and Kissingen, he brought presents that included paper knives. “The prince had spread out his purchases beside him, the carved chests, spillikins, and paper knives of all kinds which he bought such a pile of at all the spas and gave out to everyone” (Part 2, Chapter 35, p. 214).

Finally, some things never change. They appreciated pens and paper just like I do, especially Alexei Alexandrovich. “Two assistants were writing at their desks, scratching with their pens. The writing implements, for which Alexei Alexandrovich was a great enthusiast, were uncommonly fine; Alexei Alexandrovich could not help but notice this.” (Part 4, Chapter 5, p. 336).  “After folding the letter, smoothing it with his massive ivory paper knife, and putting it into an envelope with the money, he, with the satisfaction that his well-made writing implements always afforded in him, rang the bell.” (Part 3, Chapter 14, p. 261). Others also paid attention to these things, “Lydia Ivanovna had already begun to calm down when the next morning she was brought a note whose handwriting she recognized with horror. It was the handwriting of Anna Karenina. The envelope was made of paper as thick as a strip of bast; on the oblong yellow paper was a large monogram, and the letter smelled beautiful.” (Part 5, Chapter. 23, p. 470).

These peeks into the 1870s were fascinating to me and were just one of the pleasures of reading a classic novel. The quotes used here are from a 2014 translation by Marian Schwartz. My own copy was a yellowing paperback from 1961 translated by David Magarshack. The tiny print and weird smell of the paper were unappealing so I went to the library and discovered many other versions. My favourite to read was the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude because of the consistent way they referred to the characters’ names but I liked Schwartz’s turn of phrase so used it for the quotes.

I am not going to give my impression of what Anna Karenina would be like if she were a person because there is a whole book that describes that. Instead I’ll offer up a theme song for her, Release Me. Here are the lyrics:

Please, release me, let me go,

For I don’t love you anymore.

To waste our lives would be a sin,

Release me and let me love again.

I have found a new love, dear,

And I will always want him near.

His lips are warm while yours are cold

Release me, my darling, let me go.



The Perfection of the Paper Clip


This week I want to share a great book I read last month, The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession by James Ward (published as Adventures in Stationery in the UK). I originally took it out of the library but loved it so much I had to buy a copy. I knew it would be a great reference for my blog and is quite lovely as a book with creamy paper and fun endpapers.


There are chapters on paperclips, pens, paper, erasers, highlighters, sticky notes, and so much more. It reminded me of Just My Type: A Book about Fonts, another book that tackles a seemingly dull topic and transforms it through dry British humour and a refreshing curiosity about the history of things we take for granted. It is definitely part of the genre of books that take a mundane item and use it to tell a larger story. Human inventiveness and globalization are just a couple of the themes that come up. There are chapters on paperclips, pens, paper, erasers, highlighters, sticky notes and so much more.

Here is a sample excerpt: “although the shape of the pushpin means the head doesn’t lie flat against the surface it has been pinned to and so makes it unsuitable for, say, a notice board in a narrow corridor, where a careless shoulder could bring a sheet of paper fluttering to the floor with potential trial consequences”.

If you love stationery and history you will love this book.

If this book was a person, it would be James Ward.