The Pencils of Pens #1: Bic Cristal.

I like being counted as a Pencil Guy. A dozen of your family members and friends will call or text you when a show on TV or the radio has a segment about pencils. And you might even be lucky enough to be invited to collaborate with two talented bloggers in creating a really fun pencil podcast (Tim and Andy, stand up!)

But, you know, I do have and use pens.

True, there have been times when I literally went weeks without using ink. But one could go that long without (heavens forbid!) using any analogue tools these days.

My name is Johnny, and I have A Thing for Space Pens. And gel pens. And Microns. And sign pens.
And I have A Serious Thing for the Bic Cristal. So I thought this would be the perfect pen with which to begin a series of posts I have lazily put off for a long time, The Pens of Pencils – pens which are, in ways, like pencils. I wanted to do something like Pen Week, but these will just pop up from time to time instead, as time and energy permit.

How is the Bic Cristal like a pencil? It’s inexpensive and ubiquitous. You can see how much “write” you’ve got left.* You can vary the line density by varying your pressure. They are even hexagonal.

What the Bic Cristal has over the world of pencils is this: You’d be hard-pressed to find pencils which perform as well as these pens do in the same price range. In Days of Yore (2004-5), one could find cheap pencils which were very nice. But I think the branded pencil which corresponds to the Bic Cristal in price is the “economy” Dixon (not Ticonderoga) pencil. This is probably the worst branded pencil I have every attempted to use. I even masochistically keep a few around, to remind myself that I am lucky to have a large number of decent, even excellent, pencils in The Archive. And I like Dixon Ticonderoga pencils very much. Just not this monstrosity in cheap marigold paint.

Seriously the Bic Cristal  is a good pen. Remember when no one would touch PBR, and then some brave folks started to drink it and reminded us that there are beers whose humility is as wonderful to experience as which type of German hops is contained therein?** Be brave! Use some cheap pens! The Pen Climate seems to be shifting in favor of fountain pens and bottled ink, to a greater and greater degree. I watch this, and I am fascinated. If nothing else, the names some manufacturers come up with for their inks is a testament to human creativity. I do not count myself among fountain pen enthusiasts. But I like very much that there is a growing fountain pen enthusiasm. It brings folks to analogue tools, and that often brings them to pencils. Because pencils are better (!). There are good pens out there with ballpoints in them. Field Notes generated a lot of interest in the Space Pen, beginning in late 2012. If you haven’t tried one in a while, Fisher really does improve the ink every time I get a new refill. The current Fine is easily as good as a Jetstream to me, though it gives me a little more control.

This brings me back to the Bic Cristal. Have you used one lately? Not an old one you found in the drawer***, but a new one stolen from the pen cup at your favorite cafe’? I am often surprised by how much ink a medium-pointed Cristal puts down, yet how long it lasts. I found a few packs of “made in France” blue ones a while back, and the caps and plugs are a different blue. Lovely, but not the cool retro blue I usually prefer. Cristals are smooth, quick-drying pens. They write immediately. They do not smear, even with a bit of rain. You do not need to protect the point or carry a sharpener. If one walks off or gets lost, it’s no great tragedy. And, assuming your municipal recycling program takes all plastics, I am told they are recyclable.

Add to this the fact that Bic has started to put their famous Easy Glide**** ink into the North American medium Cristal, and this great pen is possibly the greatest cheap pen ever made. The blue is bluer. The black is darker. The ink is smoother. And you get that whiff of ink when you furiously scribble on your paper or canvas or skin. Plus, there’s not that gummy ball of ink that so often plagues smooth ballpoint pens like those Inkjoy…things.

In short, if you want a reliable pen which is cheap, attractive, smooth and quick-drying, get yourself a pack or a box of these. Amazon’s Cristals are the new ones, and I found a 2-dozen box at Wallieworld last time I accompanied a family member there on a errand and wondered down the pen aisle. Target has them, too. Check out Little Flower Petals’ recent posts on the Bic Cristal. If part of what you appreciate about pencils is their simplicity, the Bic Cristal might make your fanciest fountain pens jealous.

Finally, if you are surprised by the sudden Pen Post on this blog, remember that even eBay got hacked recently.


*Assuming the ink doesn’t dry up and assuming the lead inside of wooden pencil has not fractured, one can estimate the remaining useful life left in the tool.
** Certainly, there are folks who consume Pabst just to be seen consuming Pabst. But I tried it again a number of years ago as a tribute to my great-uncle (i.e., before it was cool), and it is a very nice brew – though perhaps more so before so many affectedly cool people started idolizing it and holding the cans out so that you can see the label. “Look! I found Pabst at the store or managed to correctly order one!”
*** Unlike pencils, pens have a shelf-life. Ballpoint pens last about 3 years in storage. The Space Pen lasts 100, according to Fisher’s estimates.
**** Get your mind out of the gutter.

Field Notes Expedition Edition: Smeary?

(Sorry for the lack of photos; my camera is in the shop. Literally.)

My subscription came today: the Field Notes Expedition. They are, as usual, much prettier in person. Opening it, I found them a little smelly, like last winter’s glossy edition. But the paper is smooth and flexible and feels wonderful. Check out the link if you haven’t already; the videos are pretty cool.

I immediately put both pencil and Space Pen to paper, after tearing open my packet. My Field Notes get filled and filed, not collected, though I certainly understand the impulse. Pencil feels like a magic marker on glass on this paper, with duller sides of the point feeling almost like a paintbrush. Writing on very wet paper with an indelible pencil produces a less smooth version of the same sensation. I was aghast. But then I noticed something….

Lots of stuff smears on this paper. Space Pen (and even the “fine” refill in my AG-7) smeared after nearly 1/2 hour to dry. Pencil smears more than regular paper, even somewhat smear-resistant pencils like the General’s Layout and Staedtler Wopex. Certainly, Comrades are not unfamiliar with graphite smearing, and it’s something that tests the Perfectionist in all of us. And, if you’re a heavy user of Fisher ink, you know that Space Pen’s write-anywhere ink comes at the price of severe ghosting and smearing from glacial drying times. Pigma Micron wouldn’t really adhere to the paper at all (it repels water). The Pigma Micron “Microperm” did write very well and actually dried. Still, I’d hate to be stuck with permanent markers for all six notebooks, even if I’ll have them filled before February most likely. I assume that Field Notes knows that regular pens will be powerless on this paper, since they gave out pencils this time around (I usually get a pen with my shipments theses days) and since they came out with their own Space Pen just in time for this release.

EDIT: I have found some pencils that are excellent, and even some surprises.

Pencils I have found to work pretty well:Faber-Castell “Castell 9000″ HB and B
Staedtler Wopex HB
General’s Layout
Faber-Castell Grip 2001 HB
General’s Draughting
New USA-Made Golden Bear HB
Field Notes Pencil

Things which smeared more than I’d like:
Blackwing (dark one, but this is always a little smeary)
General’s Semi-Hex HB
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 HB
Mitsubishi Hi-Uni HB
Faber-Castell Goldfaber HB

Verithins! If, like me, you’ve always wished they were better to write with, this paper works very very well. They feel like a regular pencil on this paper, and it’s very very difficult to smear them.

Someone asked if we were going to review this paper. But I think this might take more than what free time, energy and pencils we have on hand at HQ. Have other folks found the perfect graphite (or even pen?) for the new Field Notes? I will put what successful pencils I discover in the comments and will hope Comrades will do the same.

“Leave the Libaries Alone.”

Being of the last generation to need to visit a library while in school in order to get information and to do research, I have a serious soft-spot for libraries. I retain very fine memories of studying Edmund Husserl, Thomistic metaphysics and William James during December 2002 (when I probably no longer needed to actually be in the library) in Bapst Library at Boston College and truly being invigorated as much by the stacks and smells and architecture of the large study hall as I was by the copious amounts of coffee I’d been consuming.  Not to mention that the public nature of the library and the enforced silence was very good for keeping me undistracted.  I took notes in a Space Pen, in hardcover notebooks, using paper books written by and about what I was studying.  I didn’t think that such a method of work would be so seriously endangered only 8 years later.  I can’t decide if physical libraries are a case of holding fast to something we know and love for it’s own sake or if there’s really something about them that can justify us keeping them around longer.  For what it’s worth, my local library just received an expensive and extensive remodeling, in a city that’s so strapped for cash that fire houses close on a rolling basis.

Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech…

“In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public…
Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him…
So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit…

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs…

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.” (More.)

There are some interesting comments on Boing Boing, where I found this link, including the suggestion (for better or worse) that libraries get replaced by something else or nothing.

[Image of Morris Library at SIUC, summer 2005, before complete renovations.]