Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop

I sure do love sweeping social histories of a single thing and Ted Bishop's The Social Life of Ink: Culture, Wonder, and Our Relationship with the Written Word is exactly that. Learning new stuff through this sort of book is my idea of bliss.

Some random notes and quotes:

A calamophile is a "pen lover."

"Ink as solidified smoke." Carbon particles from soot provide the black in Chinese ink; the quality of the colour depends on the size and uniformity of the grains, and the particular shade nuance of black (violet/blue-tinged vs brown/red-tinged) depends on the source of the smoke.

When making your own ink from scratch, an initial step involves spontaneous combustion. I won't be trying this at home!

The correct ink formulation was as great a stumbling block as the mechanics involved in the invention of ball point pens.

Tattooing was popular among 19th-century aristocrats. "Lady Randolph Churchill (mother of Winston) had a snake tattooed on her wrist."

Bishop writes about owning three different shades of blue ink. "When the time came to refill my pen I would, I won't say 'agonize,' but certainly 'consider' which ink to use. I knew no one who did this. And it didn't stop there. I wanted to buy more ink. I was hiding bottles from my family. Ink was becoming a secret vice." I can relate. I avoid going to Delta Art because I can't resist their abundant selection of soft pastels, sold individually. I've only got about a hundred different colours already.

"Around 1025 Al-muizz ibn Badis, an eighteen-year-old prince in what is present-day Tunisia, produced The Staff of the Scribes: a treatise on inks and writing implements." Ibn Badis included recipes for inks, including coloured inks with names like 'yellow apricot,' 'pomegranate blossoms,' 'blood of the gazelle,' and 'colour of dates beginning to ripen.'"

"The work you're reading is simply black marks on a page. The text that derives from it takes shape in the mind. Thus all texts are shaped by experience and context, and are always different, even for the same reader." This reminds me of something said by Duncan Smith, creator of the readers' advisory online database NoveList: "There's no such thing as a good book." He meant that what makes a book good is specific to each individual reader's experience with it.

My experience with The Social Life of Ink was excellent. Part micro-history, part memoir, part travel writing: it's a finalist for the 2015 Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Online voting starts July 6.

Readalikes. These are some other micro-histories I've reviewed: Bitter (Jennifer McLagan); Consider the Fork (Bee Wilson); Indigo (Jenny Belfour-Paul); Just My Type (Simon Gardield); Rin Tin Tin (Susan Orlean); and The Story of Salt (Mark Kurlansky).

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