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the search for the perfect pen

By Tony Carnevale
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 11, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

When I was in fourth grade, I got to use pens in school.

It may not sound like much, but it was a big thrill at the time. For a good three years of my academic career - four if you count kindergarten - my classmates and I were allowed to use pencils for writing and crayons for coloring, but never pens. (By the way, the practice of having youngsters color in pre-drawn pictures is, if not an evil conspiracy designed to snuff out any hint of childhood creativity and the ostensibly dangerous individualist tendencies that accompany it, at least the biggest waste of time imaginable. But back to the subject at hand.)

I don't know if fourth grade is the standard year in which American classrooms introduce the pen, but it was in my district. And, hooboy, you can scarcely imagine the raw wave of power that resulted. Before, if one wanted to write "Billy Daniels eats butt" on the inside of the bus, it could easily be erased. But with the use of the pen, students twenty years from now could glean the information that Billy Daniels does, in fact, eat butt.

My fourth-grade class's reaction was quick and enthusiastic. Kids mobbed stores by the half-dozen, mothers in tow, to buy pens. David Kaplan came to class one day with a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, and he might as well have brought Brooke Shields. That is, if Brooke Shields leaked ink all over everyone's math homework.

I inherited the pen that was popular in my household: the Parker Jotter. It's your standard ballpoint with a retractable tip, and I was using it for years before I realized just what a crappy pen it was. The barrel of the pen tapered quickly to a too-narrow, slick-surfaced grip that was painful to squeeze for too long, and the ink, which wasn't really ink at all but the nasty ichor universal to the ballpoint family, would clot up and render writing impossible. In junior high, my fingers calloused and stained by the cruel Jotter, I decided a change must be made.

My first attempt at finding the perfect pen was a Sheaffer fountain pen not unlike David Kaplan's. Ink cartridges were inexpensive and easy to install, but they lasted for about a page and a half. The ink was nice - fluid and dark - but if I happened to drop the pen I could expect to have the lower half of my body soaked in that lovely ink. And the biggest problem with a fountain pen in junior high is that one's peers inevitably ask to borrow it and then write with the nib upside down, rendering one's pen as effective at its intended purpose as a dull twig. I went through quite a few Sheaffers before surrendering to the reality that I was not in a Charles Dickens novel, and therefore was not supposed to use fountain pens.

After my disappointment with the fountain pen, I slid into depression. This was not a good time for me, penwise. I call it my "dark period." I would frequent the pen aisles of Genovese, a New York drugstore, living off 10-packs of Bic Round Stics and Paper-Mates, the two vilest pens available. I didn't care what I wrote with anymore. At one point, I actually signed my name with a Hello Kitty pen. It was lavender.

And then, I learned of the rollerball.

Combining the smoothness of the fountain pen with the convenience of the ballpoint, the rollerball is the perfect pen design. If you use a rollerball, you're using a fundamentally good pen. For me, this was not enough. I needed to know exactly which kind of rollerball was the best of its species. I spent years in the testing and evaluation of different rollerballs, and if nothing else, I can at least save you the effort:

Everything by Pentel, Bic, and Paper-Mate is crap, and while it's impossible to make an absolutely terrible rollerball, theirs come close. The Pilot Precise is serviceable, but its needle-like point is too spindly and easily bent, proving that it is possible to be too fine. Sanford's Uni-Ball line, it turns out, is the way to go. The standard-issue Uni-Ball's tragic flaw is scratchiness, which it develops after a few pages of use; avoid it. Instead, try the Uni-Ball Vision. Smooth, long-lasting, attractive, and relatively inexpensive when bought in bulk, the Vision delivers a clean, skip-free line. It is indeed the world's most perfect pen. Or would be, if its silvery coating didn't flake off after more than a nanosecond of use.