Why I'm nostalgic about stationery

Piya Srinivasan
Piya SrinivasanMay 25, 2016 | 19:30

Why I'm nostalgic about stationery

Few things in life make my breath quicken. Good stationery is one. I cannot be indifferent to it. It's perverse, I know, because what is stationery but a compilation of writing material, office supplies and envelopes, if one were to get down to brass tacks.

So where is the titillation? Thing is, stationery can be deceptive because much of it seems so utilitarian. But look a little closer and you will be pulled into its magnetic field - whether it's the bold colours, sleek designs, or the promise of reducing the clutter on your desk and in your mind.


Before I walked into a stationery store, I didn't know so many shades of fluorescent even existed. Surrounded by highlighters and ball-point pens of every colour, owl-shaped bookends, Blu-Tack, glues and glitters, multi-coloured Post-It notes shaped like little rockets, the more prosaic office supplies, and every variety of notebook, journal, notepad, planner, and diary conceivable, it's not hard to lose perspective.

There's nothing as satisfying as a well-sharpened pencil.

A true stationery lover invariably spends what some might call an obscene amount of time deciding which notebook to buy. It's not dissimilar to buying a novel. You set out of home thinking you know what you want but when you encounter the stuff on show, the dance begins.

Journal or spiral-bound book? Hardbound or soft cover? The funky orange cover with bright blue font or the tamer but quietly stylish monochrome? White or multi-coloured pages? Buy within budget or the costlier one that gives you the full notebook experience?

After much soul-searching, you pick up the monochrome journal, already fantasising about the time you will pour the contents of your head into it. And since you are in the store, why not go over to the shelf with the envelopes made of Kraft paper wood pulp, in a shade of brown that you haven't seen in ages, probably since school, and you are flooded with memories as you reach out and run your hand along its edges, feeling the rough elegance and suddenly there's no question, you must have it, though the last letter you wrote was 17 years ago. Every time.


In a world that is increasingly going paperless, is a stationery fetish merely a perverse pleasure? The perversity lies in the fact that stationery is increasingly of use mostly to schoolchildren, fashion and graphic designers, architects, artists and a few select others.

But there is also a group of people - stationery fetishists - who are otherwise normal adults going about their business but will go to any length to buy good stationery.

Stationery collectors are a lot like book collectors but their differences are qualitative. There's a respectable word for a collection of books - a library. But a collection of stationery often just ends up collecting dust and becoming a source of irritation for your roommate/ partner.

Because how many notebooks does one really need nowadays? Smartphones can be used for making notes, grocery lists, or jotting down that inspirational line you will go home and convert into a poem. But that's the problem with a fetish.

The object of your obsession is impossible to resist. I buy a notebook without fail every time I enter a stationery store under the pretext of looking for something for my niece. And inevitably, every notebook lying at home has no more than a few pages of writing in it.It is then abandoned for the new kid on the block.


Maybe this fetish is a hangover from the time when stationery had more relevance in our everyday lives. Or maybe it's a lament, a requiem for a time that is no longer accessible. A time when you put pen to paper, and watched the way your cursive writing training in school flowed out of the end of your Parker pen. A time when you had pretensions of being a writer and would carry a notebook everywhere with you, just on case a brilliant idea blindsided you.

It seems that the very act of putting pen to paper slowed down time. Or that time moved slower in the days that we regularly wrote with pen and paper. It allowed you to pause over your thought and infuse it with feeling. It was all so visceral.

One of the most famous notebook makers, Moleskine, promotes itself not as a brand but as a philosophy. The Jimmy Choo of notebooks, Moleskine may rightfully be considered the epitome of stationery fetishes; it distinguishes itself from the rest through its literary pedigree. Its history found a place in author Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines, and it has catered to an illustrious clientele - Van Gogh, Hemingway, Picasso, among others.

I found out about Moleskine too late in life, when the age of putting pen to paper had just passed. I'd already bought my first laptop by then and was breaking away from the habit of writing (though that didn't stop me from buying the journal).

The word "write" in its Old English form wrītan had a range of meanings - "to score by carving, or to drag, to inscribe, draw an outline". It meant putting ink to paper or chisel to marble in order to produce words, a process that involved a tactile use of material.

And now it just means producing words, mostly on laptops which allow you to endlessly procrastinate while surfing the internet. Advanced voice recognition technology even allows you to do away with typing altogether and simply dictate words to your smartphone. Do you see the almost etymological shift that has taken place? Writing is no longer about inscribing, about process.

Even the typewriter involves a range of motion - the clickety-clack of the keys, inserting the ribbon, cleaning the machine. Typewriter enthusiasts recommend it for three primary reasons: organising one's thoughts before typing in order to avoid mistakes (more efficient than writing, deleting, reorganising, deleting on MS Word); the lack of distraction, and a pleasurable sensory engagement with the act of writing.

It's the difference between taking photographs, using a smartphone or a film camera. And that difference is the space where the meditative precision of a craft lies.

There's a store in Manhattan that only sells wood-cased pencils and antique sharpeners. As the owner reminds us, sometimes there's nothing as satisfying as a well-sharpened pencil, and her store is thriving because pencils are representative of simpler times. Notes from best friends, cards from old boyfriends, letters from a loved one who is no more, postcards from distant shores, your own wedding invitations - the value of these is unquantifiable.

The weight of memory will always be tactile. As the stationery industry struggles to come up to speed with the 21st century, the era of handwritten correspondence must not be erased by our need for speed. Give stationery a chance.

Last updated: April 10, 2018 | 18:16
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