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The History of Ink and Paper: Books Celebrating Stationery

Over the years I have become a huge stationery geek. It started with books but quickly expanded to anything paper or stationery related at which point I got hooked on snail mail.

Nothing is more addictive to an avid letter writer than fun stationery. I love to see how it is all made, and I must not be the only one out there, because I have come across several books that seem to be created just for us stationery lovers.

Right now I am reading The Perfection of the Paper Clip: curious tales of invention, accidental genius, and stationery obsession by James Ward which is just full of stationery history. I now know the history behind the Moleskine notebook, paperclips, and pushpins… These are all things that I have never thought twice about but turn out to be far more interesting than you would think. “This wonderfully quirky book will change the way you look at your desk forever with stories of accidental genius, bitter rivalries, and an appreciation for everyday objects, like the humble but perfectly designed paper clip and the utilitarian, irreplaceable pencil.” 

Next time I use a paperclip I will be thinking about all the patents created just for them. The Early Office Museum had to limit the paperclip exhibit to patents submitted before 1902 because of one prolific inventor who kept patenting his designs. I wonder how many patents there are for paperclips now. At home I have paperclips shaped like high heels, flowers, and dog bones thanks to the generosity of my penpals. If you like the idea of reading about paperclips, you should check out some of these other books that celebrate stationery!

On Paper: the everything of its two-thousand-year history by Nicholas A. Basbanes

“A consideration of all things paper—the invention that revolutionized human civilization; its thousand-fold uses (and misuses); its sweeping influence on society; its makers, shapers, collectors, and pulpers—by the admired cultural historian.” publisher

The Social Life of Ink: culture, wonder, and our relationship with the written word by Ted Bishop

“Ink is so much a part of daily life that we take it for granted, yet its invention was as significant as the wheel. Ink not only recorded culture, it bought political power, divided peoples, and led to murderous rivalries. Ancient letters on a page were revered as divine light, and precious ink recipes were held secret for centuries. And, when it first hit markets not so long ago, the excitement over the disposable ballpoint pen equalled that for a new smartphone—with similar complaints to the manufacturers. Ted Bishop sets out to explore the story of ink. From Budapest to Buenos Aires, he traces the lives of the innovators who created the ballpoint pen—revolutionary technology that still requires exact engineering today. ” publisher

Shady Characters: the secret life of punctuation, symbols, and other typographical marks by Keith Houston

“Revealing the secret history of punctuation, this tour of two thousand years of the written word, from ancient Greece to the Internet, explores the parallel histories of language and typography throughout the world and across time. Whether investigating the asterisk (*) and dagger ()—which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible–or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet, Keith Houston draws on myriad sources to chart the life and times of these enigmatic squiggles, both exotic () and everyday (&). From the Library of Alexandria to the halls of Bell Labs, figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Vladimir Nabokov, and George W. Bush cross paths with marks as obscure as the interrobang and as divisive as the dash. Ancient Roman graffiti, Venetian trading shorthand, Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue round out an ever more diverse set of episodes, characters, and artifacts.” publisher

The Missing Ink: the lost art of handwriting by Philip Hensher.

“When Philip Hensher realized that he didn’t know what one of his closest friend’s handwriting looked like, he felt that something essential was missing from their friendship. It dawned on him that, having abandoned fountain pens for keyboards, we have lost one of the ways by which we come to recognize and know another person. The Missing Ink tells the story of this endangered art. Hensher reflects on what handwriting can tell us about personality and personal history: are your own letters neat and controlled or messy and inconsistent? Did you shape your penmanship in worshipful imitation of a popular girl at school, or do you still use the cursive you were initiated into in the second grade? Hensher guides us through Arabic calligraphy and the story of the nineteenth-century handwriting evangelists who traveled across America to convert the masses to the moral worth of copperplate; he pays tribute to the warmth and personality of a handwritten note. ” publisher

These are just a few of the books exploring stationery and its history that I have come across. Have you found any other good ones? I would love to know.

~ Sarah B.

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Welcome to The Reader, a blog from the Readers' Services staff at Halifax Public Libraries. Our goal is to create a forum for book news and related discussion among leisure readers. A place for Halifax leisure readers to interact with their library and the larger community of leisure readers.


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