In the great age of computers, when writing often involves a string of incorporeal blips tapped out on a plastic keyboard, a fine fountain pen seems a bulky anachronism.
But to many at the Philadelphia Pen Show, which concluded an inky three-day extravaganza yesterday at the Sheraton Philadelphia Center City, the fountain pen is not an old-fashioned tool designed to dye fingertips blue, but a unique instrument artfully crafted to free the inner writer; not a device designed for dry chicken-scratchings, but an artistic creation expressive of individual character.
Eyeing a reporter's balky plastic felt-tip pen, nib-repair wizard Mike Masuyama first frowned, then smiled when asked if it could be repaired.
"I would just smash it so you would need to get a fountain pen," he said.
Actually, Masuyama, who does business in Georgia, said he used computers all the time for billing and other workaday essentials.
"When I have a chance to write with my hand, I want to enjoy it," he said.
"Pens are still an important part of modern life," said Dante Del Vecchio, head of the Visconti pen company in Florence, Italy, sponsor of the show, as he chatted with Brown University computer science professor Stan Zdonik, down from Providence, R.I.
"I agree," Zdonik, 62, replied. "There is something about a fountain pen I respond to viscerally. It's hard to explain. I'm a computer guy, but it's sad to see computers replacing handwriting in school, because beautiful handwriting is an art."
Zdonik was clearly speaking, if not preaching, to the converted.
"Without writing," Del Vecchio said, "we have no civilization. We are still living in the cave."
"Yes, that's true," said Zdonik. "It gave us intergenerational memory."
"The pen is connected to culture," said Del Vecchio.
"I learn better through writing than typing," said Zdonik.
For Del Vecchio, who has just come out with a line of pens made from lava, the pen is an emblem of culture and a sign of cultured consumption. Zdonik can appreciate that, but is also a kind of pen head, a discerning accumulator with a collection of about 400 pens.
"For me a pen is a work of art," said Zdonik, who discovered his love of pens as a child. "I'm an amateur musician, and I'd collect mandolins if I had the space. But they're both works of art, and you create with both a pen and a mandolin."
Over at a repair table manned by Richard Binder - known as the "guru of nibs" - an anxious besuited man watched as Binder filed and pressed and worked on an elegant pen.
"It feels like it's holding," the man said, clearly upset that his pen was impeding, not assisting, flow.
Binder worked for a moment and handed it back.
"Oh, yes!" the man exclaimed after writing a bit on a white paper pad. "You did it, Richard! I'll sleep better tonight. It's better than a magician. With a magician, all is an illusion. This is the real thing."
Binder, 63, who began his work life as a software engineer but succumbed to the siren song of pens, has a collection of about 400, including his workhorse 1946 Parker 51.
"People sometimes ask what I do," he said. "I say, 'I repair fountain pens.' They think a minute, and then they get a look of a deer caught in headlights and say, 'Oh. That's nice.' "
Rashid Janjua, 40, from Lawrenceville, N.J., presented Binder with a very smart-looking pen, a pen with a problem.
"It's very scratchy," Janjua told him. Not only that, the nib was bent. But Janjua had not used or dropped the pen. What could be the matter? There was a clicking noise inside the cap.
"I don't know if [the nib] is hitting the inside" of the cap, the doctor said, perplexed.
Binder took a few minutes to look at the nib and inside the cap. He pronounced the unhappy verdict: design defect. For some reason the cap did not sit properly, damaging the nib. Janjua decided to take the matter up with the manufacturer.
Janjua described himself as a "newbie" in the world of fountain pens, even though he got his first one more than 25 years ago. He has about 15, five or six of them customized for his style of writing by Binder.
"Typically, doctors write very illegibly," Janjua said. "That's always bothered me. If I write something, I want it to be legible."
Dan Strollo, 20, watched Binder work on Janjua's classy pen. For Strollo, an accounting major at the State University of New York at Geneseo, the drive of 51/2 hours to the pen show was nothing. He already has about 30 pens, many of them considered vintage.
"A fountain pen writes so much smoother," he said, explaining the passion. "It makes you write better. It makes you look better."