In Moderate Praise of Ballpoints
The pen that writes these words came from a card of ten ballpoint pens for $1.25. It writes as well as any other ballpoint pen—which is not very well, but adequately. If you have a ballpoint pen and a sheet of paper, you can make marks on the paper. The pen will do the job.
It used to be that very cheap ballpoint pens were unreliable—or rather that they could be relied on to skip and blot. This doesn’t seem to be true anymore. Even when it was true, though, the well-known brands were not much more expensive.
You will hear many complaints here, in other articles, about ballpoint pens. In this article, however, we shall celebrate the virtues of the ballpoint.
First, cheapness. A ballpoint pen is just about the cheapest useful object you can buy, and its utility is unbelievably out of proportion to its price. Two ballpoint pens have enough ink in them to write a novel.
Second, portability. No other writing instrument is so easy to take everywhere. If you bring a fountain pen with you, you have to treat it with respect, or it will retaliate by inking everything around it.
Having mentioned cheapness and portability, we have probably exhausted the virtues of the ballpoint pen. But those are great virtues. You can carry a reliable pen in your pocket, and if you lose it you can get another if you have a spare quarter.
Ballpoint pens have many vices, the worst of which is that they encourage, and even enforce, bad writing habits. Your pen should make letters with the lightest possible touch, but ballpoint pens reward heavy strokes that leave furrows in the sheet below the one you’re writing on. Even with that hard pressing, a ballpoint’s writing is much lighter and less legible than anything written with liquid ink.
But there are reasons for the success of ballpoint pens. We have mentioned cheapness and portability, and those are enough to account for the popularity of ballpoints. To those virtues we might add one other: writing with a ballpoint pen makes us appreciate the pleasure of a good pen when we go back to it.