The Social Life of Ink

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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.

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Visual Journals

As I have written about before, I keep a daily journal. I have also experimented with visual or art journaling. I say experimented because I have tried a couple of different forms. One is to include doodles and ephemera to my regular daily journal. I like doing this, especially on trips, but I do find that you need a loosely bound journal in order to accommodate a lot of additional stuff being glued or taped in. My other type is more like an art journal. I have a sketchbook where I like to do creative play like drawing, painting, and collage. I save one page each month to somehow illustrate and record the noteworthy things that happened in that month. This is a fun exercise in reflection that I probably wouldn’t otherwise do and I find it is a quicker way to look up when something happened than flipping through all of my unindexed journals. I don’t usually share these pages with anyone but here are a few from the past to give you an idea of what I mean.

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I enjoy looking at blogs for inspiration but sometimes it is nice to just flip through a real book. I recently discovered Jen Morris’ blog and found that she was combining two of my favourite things, a discussion about journaling and a giveaway! She reviewed an intriguing book by Helen Lehndorf called Write to the Centre. Because it is published in New Zealand, the shipping rates are a bit high for Canada but she is providing an opportunity to win a copy through her blog. http://www.jenmorriscreative.com/writetothecentregiveaway/

If a visual journal was a person, I am pretty sure it would be a woman. She values creativity and knows it is not just best for herself, but everyone around her, if she makes time to nurture that aspect of herself.

Postcards

Postcards

At a time where the mailbox seems to full of advertising and bills, who doesn’t delight in getting a postcard from a friend or relative who has been traveling even if they arrived back home weeks previously?

The origin of the official postcard dates back to 1867, when the Austrian government issued a card meant to be used as stationary which required postage. There had been earlier unofficial cards like the one Theodore Hook sent to himself in 1840 with a caricature of postal workers he drew on it (the first mail art project?) but once the Austrians issued theirs, other European countries started as well, with Canada getting on the bandwagon in 1871 as the first non-European country to do so. At the time, postcards were considered an inexpensive and quick way to send a message. These messages tended to be a bit bland (weather’s great, wish you were here kind of thing) probably because they can be seen by anyone, sort of like Facebook posts.

Picture postcards came a little bit later with the kind we usually think of as postcards (picture on one side with room on the reverse for both a message and an address) being introduced just after the turn of the last century. Innovations in photographic printing really helped the postcard business and by the early years of the 20th century, billions were posted annually. Now that photography is no longer a novelty, I find when I am looking for a postcard to send, l like to seek out postcards that feature local art rather than idealized scenes.

I have a small collection of postcards, although I wouldn’t call myself a deltiologist. Here are some of the more interesting:

  1. A postcard to my mother as a child from her uncle who was stationed in Malaysia during the Second World War. This would have been sent before he was captured as a prisoner of war.

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2. A postcard bought by my mother on an outing with friends where, rather than send it to anyone, she got all her friends to sign it. 

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3. A postcard to my stepmother from a friend who visited the USSR during the 1970s. An unusual travel destination for the time. 

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I have some blank postcards myself so as a thank you to my readers, I will send one to anyone who leaves a comment. To keep your mailing address private, please send it separately to mingibergsson[at]gmail[dot]com (you can trust me, honestly, I have no other use for your personal address).

If a postcard was a person, they would be a little old-fashioned (a bit square so to speak) and while they love to travel, their thoughts are never far from those they love back home.

Chinese Calligraphy

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I have been interested in calligraphy for a long time and a trip to China in 2008 expanded that interest to include Chinese calligraphy. I was so fascinated that I purchased some calligraphy supplies while I was there.

One aspect of traditional Chinese calligraphy that I really love is the respect shown for calligraphy tools. They even call them the Four Treasures. These treasures are the brush, ink, paper and ink stone.

Brushes:  Calligraphy brushes are traditionally made with animal hair. As with paint brushes, different kinds of hair have different properties that affect the brush stroke. White hair in brushes is usually goat hair and are a bit softer so are good for large characters. I didn’t know anything about brushes when I bought mine in China and I actually like the slightly stiffer, brown haired brush (the one on the far right of the photo) I got when I took a Chinese calligraphy course from the Confucius Institute the following year. The course was advertised as being for all ages so I was a bit dismayed to discover most of the students were Chinese children. As I sat on my tiny chair I reassured myself that even though I may not understand Chinese like the kids did, I can sit still and listen like a pro so I had that going for me.

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Ink: Ink sticks are generally made of soot that is mixed with glue and then pressed into a mold. The type of soot (pine, oil, charcoal, etc.) and other additives create different inks. Ink sticks are often decorated, as mine is, on both sides. Liquid sumi ink works well too.

Inkstick Inkstick reverse Ink

Inkstone: The inkstone is a shallow dish (with lid) used to grind the ink stick in a small amount of water to make the ink. This process takes about 15 minutes (depending on how dark you want your ink) and is considered an important meditative step to prepare yourself for creating calligraphy or to paint. Not all inkstones are made of stone, mine is ceramic, and many are beautifully decorated although I like the simplicity of mine.

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Paper: For calligraphy, the best paper is slightly absorbent. I have some rice paper that was bought locally but made in Japan. For practice purposes my calligraphy instructor suggested using paper towels like the type found in public washrooms or newsprint. We were given thin paper with guide lines printed on them for learning the characters in class.

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There are other treasures too, like the seal and the seal ink. Seals (sometimes called a chop) are used like signatures. Typically made of stone, they are used with a thick paste-like red ink. I bought mine from a street vendor in Xian, China. It is supposed to be a translation of my name but I am not sure how well she understood me. There is something very aesthetically pleasing to me to have that small addition of red to the black and white of the ink and paper.

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If the Four Treasures were people, I image them as four ancient Chinese sages with long beards and silk robes that will impart their wisdom to anyone who will take the time to listen.

Rhodia Memo Book

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I recently won a little Rhodia Memo Book from https://www.rhodiadrive.com/. At 7.5 cm by 12 cm, this notebook is truly pocket sized. While I am not crazy about the orange cover, it does stand out in the clutter of my desk and I know these notebooks do come with white and black covers as well. I have previously reviewed the Rhodia graph paper so can vouch for the quality.

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I plan to use my notebook during my next trip. Usually when I am travelling my days are packed so when it comes time to write a journal entry before bed, I am so tired that I just list all the things that I did. There is nothing wrong with this but I find my entries are much richer with detail if I jot down things I notice and am thinking about during the day in a little notebook. I generally just throw away these notes once I have recorded my journal entry but I  just may keep this little book with my travel journal.

If this notebook were a person, they would be definitely size small, neat and efficient with a love for being on the go.

Coming up next week:  a book review of The Perfection of the Paper Clip

Travel Journals

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Right now I am away on holiday in Oaxaca, Mexico so I prepared a couple of blogs ahead of time so I could keep up with my weekly schedule. My mind has been on packing lists and one thing I was sure to bring along was a journal. I like having a separate journal for special journeys and for this trip I am trying something different. I love the idea of scrap-booking but never get around to actually doing  it after I get back from a vacation. I still haven’t completed the one I started for our first trip to the Yukon in 2005. I have been back there three times since and still haven’t finished that scrapbook.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For the last trip I took (to Iceland about six months ago) I attempted making an altered book based on my trip journal, but there again I have only managed to do a few pages.

So this time I am going to try more of a smash book approach. Last year I participated in a workshop at Whitemud Crossing library led by a woman volunteering for Edmonton ReUse Centre. We took old calendars, made covers for them and folded the pages for what she suggested would make good greeting card organizers. I don’t really have a need for a greeting card organizer but I saw some journaling potential. I am going to use the blank pages for writing my daily journal and then glue in maps, pamphlets, and other ephemera into the fold out pages. If I don’t end up collecting much of that  (unlikely as I have a packrat’s eye for that type of thing) I’ll just print some photos when I get home and fill the journal up that way. I tried putting some gesso and paint on a couple of the printed pages but I don’t like the look so will find other ways to cover up distracting elements of the design. I am looking forward to seeing how this works out.

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If this journal was a person it would be a wearing a Tilley hat and funky upcycled jewelry.

Coming next week: Clairefontaine multi-subject notebook