What I'm Reading: The Social Life of Ink

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


I don't know about you, but I am one of those people who always has at least one pen rolling around in the bottom of my bag. Even though I rarely take notes during interviews anymore (thinks voice recorder), and use the note function on my phone when needing to jot things down quickly, I still hold out hope that I'm going to have time to actually sit down, pull out a notebook, and put pen to paper.

Despite the fact that I don't use it that often, the pen in my bag seems to change regularly depending on where I am when I've thrown it in the bag, who I've lent it to, where I've picked up a new one, and where I've left the old one behind. It is a cheap, simple tool that I don't really think about much.

That is, I didn't think about it much until I started reading Ted Bishop's The Social Life of Ink

An English and Film Studies Professor at the University of Alberta (I was lucky enough to have him as a teacher when I attended the University as an undergrad), Bishop became inspired to write this ink explainer when he went in search of a comprehensive history on the subject and found that none existed. What was meant to be a dry, academic work that laid out the facts, turned into a love affair with the medium that took Bishop on adventures across the globe, and made him an self-proclaimed obsessed expert on the subject. (I have attended one of his book readings, and to say he is passionate about ink would be an understatement.) 

But how can ink be so fascinating, you ask? 

Think about it this way. The development of ink and the tools we use to write with it is why we have histories, great works of art, literature, the ends of wars, the beginning of them, and more. So much of the development of human civilization is based on this seemingly simple substance that now exists in disposable pens that roll around in the bottom of our bags. 

Ink binds us. We are surrounded by ink, immersed in ink, a substance so common it is invisible. From cave walls to quill pens to laser printers, ink has traced the line of our culture.
— page ix of the Introduction to "The Social Life of Ink"

In his book, Bishop takes readers from the historic cutthroat world of pen patents to the social rankings of ink stones in China to bloodstained texts in the Middle East. It is a fascinating read that is as much a travel memoir as it is educational. 

And trust me, you will never look at a pen the same way again.