As I reflected on our annual assignment of suggesting gifts for our imaginative conservative brothers and sisters, I struggled with ideas until Thanksgiving morning came. As I gave thanks for so many people in my life, my mind wondered over the material gifts I had been given over the years. There are many great books on my shelves that found their way to their dusty home through the hands of friends and students. There are other trinkets, too, resting near those books, brought back from exotic locations I will never visit. But the gifts that came back to my mind most powerfully were instruments of work and whimsy.
Though I go through periods of preferring the pencil and have been given some great ones over the years from friends like Jim Harrigan, I am currently in a pen phase and so will focus this year on the ancient pen, which, we are told, is mightier than the sword (though a sword is always a great gift for an imaginative conservative!)
I treasure the pens I have been given by friends over the years. There are the two fountain pens and one beautiful tiger eye gel pen given years ago by the great scholar of John C. Calhoun, Lee Cheek. There is the giant fountain pen brought back from India and given to me by my fellow Kentuckian and the man who saved Russell Kirk from drowning, Alan Cornett. Then there is the unpretentious little black fountain pen given me by the Seattle English Professor who edited books on C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton with one just like it. It is on that simple pen that writes in a thick, generous line that I want to focus for just a moment.
Andrew Tadie is the most generous man I have ever met. He has given me several pens, paper, and even an ink well and dip pen from his own office desk. He curated tea for me to explore my tastes and sent my young son a gorgeous hunting knife that is being carried in the woods today even as I write this. But the moment I will never forget happened a decade or so ago, I guess.
Dr. Tadie was visiting me in Louisville. He conducted a seminar for the McConnell Center that day, and I took him to dinner afterwards. I change out pens regularly and because he was in town, I decided to return to the little black pen he gave me several years before. While at dinner, another companion suddenly pointed to my chest, a concerned look developing on his face. I looked down to see a growing pool soaking through my dress shirt as if I had taken a silent round through the heart. I pulled the leaking pen and tried to laugh it off. It was only a shirt, I said.
Though he could do nothing for my shirt, Andrew took my leaking pen in his hands for inspection. Taking it apart, he hypothesized that there must be a small crack in the barrel. As he inspected mine, he reached into his own pocket and handed me a twin of my pen and asked me to test it. Andrew writes in a beautiful calligraphic hand and so uses a chisel-type nib. He asked me which nib I preferred. I only write cursive and so I responded that the nib he used was not of much use to me. He then took his pen back, took both pens apart, and gave me the pen he had used for years himself, but with my old nib put into his barrel. He didn’t give me the shirt off his back, but he literally gave me the pen out of his pocket, and it means more to me than about any gift I have ever been given. The pen, not worth a lot in the marketplace, is worth everything to me as a reminder of friendship and generosity. Someday, God willing I don’t lose it, I will pass it along to younger hands with the story of Andrew’s generosity.
Pens make wonderful gifts for the imaginative conservative. There is no better gift than giving a pen that you actually have used. There is something truly beautiful about using an instrument that was once used by someone you care for—and imagining what they might have written with it. But, if you don’t have such a gift to give, let me suggest two fountain pens I have discovered this year—one very inexpensive but of good quality and one that I have fallen in love with.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but solid stocking stuffer that writes well and is well constructed, let me suggest the Pilot Metropolitan. I really don’t think you can buy a better pen for under $15. I just sent one as a gift to a former student studying in Laos, and I hope it is serving him well over there. If you are ready to spend more, I have fallen in love with the Pilot Vanishing Point. This pen has an 18 karat gold fine nib and feels substantial in your hand, weighing in at 5.8 ounces. Best of all? This is a retractable fountain pen! With this beauty there is no capping and uncapping to keep the ink wet and flowing. If your imaginative conservative is like me, he will be in the habit of marking up his books and will have been frustrated in using fountain pens to do so (uncap-cap-uncap-cap…). This Pilot puts the nib always just one click away from the paper! And, how does it write? It may be the best writing pen I have in my collection. I have it in a sophisticated but simple black matte, but it comes in various colors to suit your gift-giving needs.
And so, in this glorious season, I suggest you give the gift of a fine writing instrument—perhaps one you have already mixed a bit of yourself into, but, if not, no imaginative conservative will be disappointed in receiving a new pen! Just remind him that he is to use it to conserve the permanent things in the part of the world in which he lives—including sending thank-you notes to generous gift-givers like you!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Antique Amber Ink Bottle With Pelikan Fountain Pen,” by Kalyne Soldanels.