I was drinking a cup of coffee in a Vancouver hotel lobby earlier this year when I heard a few of my fellow guests talking about the Moleskine store display elsewhere in the room. One of them didnt seem entirely convinced that it was real. Is this a front? she asked her traveling companion. Elsewhere in the room, I thought of my time spent in Moleskine stores in New York City, looking through racks and shelves featuring notebooks, writing implements, and other devices central to the craft of writing.
I didnt leap to my feet and shout, Its no front! because that would have been creepy and wildly inappropriate. But I definitely thought about their comments long after they left the space. Writers have an interesting relationship with their tools and implements.
On the desk in front of me is a mug filled with pens (and a few pencils) of different makes and models, only about half of which I enjoy writing with. Three feet to my right is an array of as-yet-unused Field Notes notebooks; Ive been a subscriber for a few years now, and once wrote an article exploring how the company goes about creating a new design.
And whether youre a writer yourself or simply interested in their lives and works, specific destinations inspired by the craft of writing have become more widespread. Institutions like the Morgan Library will periodically feature exhibits of the ephemera of writersincluding a 2011 show of writers diaries. The Tate Modern show Surrealism Beyond Borders featured poet Ted Joanss Long Distance, a massive and bound exquisite corpse drawing that featured contributions from a host of writers, musicians, and artists. In this particular case, the work was still being contributed to over a year after Joanss death in 2003.
Theres even a growing aspect of literary trappings to boutique travel. Brooklyns Wythe Hotel, for instance, sells a notebook produced in collaboration with Public Supply. And earlier this year, Montblanc Haus opened in Hamburg, Germany. The space is currently home to a permanent exhibition focusing on the handwriting of celebrities across the ages, as well as a temporary exhibition that spotlights patrons of the arts.
At what point do the tools of writing go from functional objects to signifiers of being a writer without ever having to sit down and write?
Its enough to make you wonder, however do writers have a tendency to fetishize certain tools of the trade? Or is the amount of collective headspace dedicated to notebooks, pens, pencils, and the combinations thereof precisely the right amount?
One thing is for sure: interest in writers physical writing is very real. As Alexa Schilz, the Director of Brand Strategy for Montblanc, explained, the company had the beginnings of what would become the first exhibition there before Montblanc Haus officially opened. Our heritage department was already in the possession of multiple authentic autographs from some of the most remarkable writers from the past, such as Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie or Thomas Mann, Schilz explained. She also clarified that the growth of that collection is an ongoing process.
We aim at bringing a maximum of diversity into the collection featuring handwriting from people who left their mark in past or present, using a variety of languages, alphabets and writing styles to express themselves, she said.
As for whether or not Montblanc Haus might work more closely with literary organizations in the future, Schilz didnt have many specifics to reveal. Most certainly, the collaboration with writers and organizations in the field will play a major role in the months and years to come, she said.
Schilz also stressed that Montblanc Haus was also designed with the local community in mind. We have such a rich storytelling related to our roots, craftsmanship, innovation, design and writing culture, and Montblanc Haus was designed to be the place to showcase all of that, she said. At the same time, Hamburg is the birthplace of Montblanc and it is the place where all our writing instruments are created. Montblanc Haus is therefore also a beautiful way to open our doors to Hamburgs public.
That focus on the community also played a part when talking with people whose profession involves selling paper, pens, and other writing accessories to the public. Kelly Henick, the Assistant Pen Buyer at Portland, Oregons Oblation Papers & Press noted that, in her opinion, writers and artists are our core customer base.
We feel less isolated with pen and paper, perhaps more in tune with the prospect of something happening outside ourselves.
Sometimes, theyre also involved in selling pens, pencils, and stationery to other writers. Zach Barocas is the co-owner of Brooklyns Measure Twiceas well as a poet and the operator of an independent press. He observed that his own close relationship with writing paraphernalia had changed over time. Like many of us, Ive spent countless hours researching and trying new or different, and better materials, he said. Ive pretty well settled in, however, with the idea that anything can work but it has to be attractive to the user; that is, the best materials are the ones we want to use.
Both Henick and Barocas shared plenty of recommendations when it comes to paper and writing implements. (Both are big advocates of Tomoe River paper, for one thing.) And both told me that theyd seen an uptick in people interested in writing gear during the pandemic.
During the height of the pandemic, we had a lot of people come to us wanting to get into the fountain pen hobby, Henick said. I think it helps us feel more connected to each other to receive handwritten notes and handwriting our thoughts and feelings in journals.
To go back to the stack of unused Field Notes for a momenttheres a part of me that admires their design to the extent that it feels wrong to mar that look and feel by doing something gauche like, you know, actually writing in them. Thats one thing thats kept me from making my way through them as much as Id like; the other is trying to match the design of the notebook with the themes of a project, which I realize is borderline insufferable.
But it brings up a larger question: at what point do the tools of writing go from functional objects in their own right to signifiers that give the trappings of being a writer without ever having to sit down and write?
That also came up when talking with Barocas. He spoke about his fondness for one particular notebook in part because of its relatively humble design. LIFE Vermillion ruled notebooks are a favorite, he said. The paper is wonderfully receptive to any pen or pencil, and if the papers color is a bit unorthodox, its quite easy on the eyes. Theyre also fairly humble books, paper covers, sewn bindings, roughly 70 pagesnot the notebook one might reserve solely for ones most profound thoughts. Its a notebook one can dig right into.
He also spoke about the ways in which writing can impart a sense of community. As our culture retreats further and further into minimalist fantasies and streaming, for example, it becomes almost a kind of moral position for some people to have some pens and notebooks around, to send a card or letter, to write poetry or prose longhand, Barocas said. Its not uncommon to [see] these same people writing more, reading books, buying records. These practices bring people together in ways that are better described elsewhere but are worth noting anytime. We feel less isolated with pen and paper, perhaps more in tune with the prospect of something happening outside ourselves.
That, in turn, speaks to something inherent to the writing process for plenty of writers. It can be difficult to feel the progress of a new workespecially when dealing with the ephemera of a digital file. I can point to a stack of notebooks related to a specific project and draw a certain comfort from that, and I cant be the only one. (Just as I cant be the only writer who sometimes posts notebook photos on social media.)
The last few years may have deepened the ways in which writers engage with their writing instruments of choice, but the tradition that informs that engagement extends much deeper into literary history.