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COLUMN ONE : Power and Pleasures of the Pen : Aficionados revel in the revival of fine stationery and the personal letter. Executives find handwritten memos have gained new clout. And who wants a computer-printed Valentine?

April 03, 1994|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

May we step back a moment from the great, heralded, chaotic coming of the Information Age and reflect on the survival of pen, paper and letter?

Survival? Make it revival.

Chisel and stone gave way to quill and paper some centuries ago to make writing easier and faster. And now futurists tell us the pen and paper will soon disappear because of quicker photon and silicon.

Or perhaps not.

"Futurists are supposed to say that, so it cannot be helped," said Ellsworth Brown, president of the Carnegie Institute and Library in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Brown is one of thousands of busy Americans who race through life, from meeting to telephone conference, from taxi to airport, all the while carrying that supposedly endangered artifact from a more placid age: the fountain pen.

"As the saying goes, it is a gift to be simple," Brown said.

Large, heavy and crafted with precision, the fine writing pen has made a comeback, and is staying back.

The personal letter too.

Some leading-edge Luddites are out there, perhaps in your own neighborhood, trying to revive the dying art of penmanship.

"It's a combination of things personal," Brown said about his fountain pen and pad of paper. To manipulate data, give him an electronic machine. To turn over ideas, he'll take a pen. "It is incredibly convenient . . . you can flag things, circle them, go back to them, see them."

Maybe we should thank the computer.

Rather than diminish our interest and need, the microprocessor seems to stimulate demand for these venerated traditions: sending us back into our past for ways in which to be expressive and personal against the unbearable sameness of the computer, for ways to be reflective against the ephemeral electron.

So despite the explosion of E-mail, interlinks, cellular phones and fax machines, it may come as a blow to those infatuated by future-think to know that in 1991, Americans wrote and mailed 100 million more personal letters than they did just four years earlier, according to the U.S. Postal Service. Not only that, personal letters increased their share of the overall mail load, despite rising volumes of junk and business correspondence.

Beyond just raw numbers is the growing appreciation for this lively art.

"There is nothing that can take the place of a letter," wrote Jerry Lee Hill, founder of the Minneapolis-based Letter Enjoyers Assn. In an interview conducted via mail, Hill wrote: "A letter has the ability to deliver a bit of the personality of its writer. . . . There's a charm and graciousness to letter writing."

"Letters are gifts--both ways," said Van Gordon Sauter, Fox Network news executive and former president of CBS News. "I enjoy writing letters because I enjoy thinking of the people who will receive them."

But, you say, you are too busy to write.

Via letter, Sauter points to President Theodore Roosevelt: "On New Year's Day in 1907, he welcomed the citizenry to the White House and shook 8,107 hands--an average of 50 per minute. He also on that day conducted personal professional business, and between breakfast and a morning reception wrote 25 letters (of the estimated 50,000 he had written to that point in his life.)"

That was then, but what about tomorrow? Will young people retain any of this tradition?

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Four years ago, the Postal Service set out to increase literacy and an appreciation for the letter by establishing "wee deliver" mock post offices at elementary schools. Today, 18,000 schools have adopted the program, which teaches kindergartners through fourth-graders how to correspond with each other.

A Postal Service spokeswoman says one result has been better attendance at these schools.

Enjoying an even more obvious resurgence are the tools of writing.

A generation ago, the idea of a successful retail store specializing in fine writing instruments was quaint to the extreme. Just a few existed. Today, pen stores thrive in most major cities, and some distribute catalogues nationwide. Department stores and artist-supply, luggage and gift shops also market quality pens.

In the last 15 years, U.S. sales of fountain pens have increased from 6.4 million to 25.4 million, according to the Writing Instruments Manufacturers Assn. You can add to that the millions more fine ballpoints and roller balls. It is common for these instruments to reach prices of $100 to $600 apiece.

Counting pencils and cheaper pens, 5 billion writing instruments were sold in the United States in 1992, twice as many as in 1973. Innovations, style changes and quality improvements seem to occur monthly--both the result of growing manufacturer competition and an increasing number of pen and paper collectors.

To men like Jon Sullivan, this is the golden age of the pen. He is president of America's pioneer specialty store, Fahrney's, in Washington.

"There was a time when people used to walk in and say: 'You got to be kidding. There's still such a thing as a fountain pen?' " Sullivan said.

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