Book Review: The Richardspens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 1: Glossopedia

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  • Richard Binder
  • The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 1: Glossopedia
  • 2013, self-published.
  • $5.99; isbn-10: 0988407906, isbn-13: 978-0-9884079-0-9.
  • 258 pages, illustrations; epub, iBook, Kindle.

Richard Binder is a name well-known in the North American fountain pen community. A self-made pen repair and nib-modification guru, his Nashua Pen Spa recently ceased repair operations, causing many to ask themselves in dismay, ‘What will we do without Binder?’, and ‘What will Binder do now?’ The answer has come: write. Binder has recently released the first in a series of ebooks, The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 1: Glossopedia.

Many of us are already familiar with Binder’s web site, primarily as a source of excellent fountain pen-related reference material. And while many good web sites are ephemeral in nature, disappearing with their owners, it seems that Binder is aware of the importance of keeping this information available. “The purpose behind this publishing is to get the information into a format that will still be available after the day I wake up and find myself ‘asleep beneath the lawn.’ ” Thus, the Glossopedia includes the information found in it’s online namesake.

Weighing in at a respectable 258 pages, this first volume is comprehensive. Arranged like an encyclopedia, it includes a wide range of information. The basics include definitions: pen parts, filling systems, and manufacturers. But Binder has included many details that wouldn’t necessarily be easily available, even in the internet age, and we benefit from both his extensive repair experience, and his network of knowledgeable contacts in the pen world. His folksy writing style and occasional wry comments (India ink: “is death to fountain pens”) make for easy and enjoyable reading.

Although American manufacturers figure large in the listings, Binder doesn’t suffer from tunnel vision. The strong European influences in pen history are fully credited, and comprehensively so. Additionally, the author is an equal opportunist when it comes to era: modern pens are given the same weight as notable historic examples. Manufacturers’ entries include minute historical details, and their patents are listed and linked to URLs online (more on that later). While such details are wonderful to have, the lack of a bibliography or references might limit their use by serious historians. The author mentions in the acknowledgements the “many thousands of period books and magazines wherein I have gleaned much of the historical information you will find here.” It is, admittedly, a great deal of work to document these, but some would have vaulted this reference from ‘very good’ to ‘unparalleled’ in quality.

A welcome inclusion are non-fountain pen entries, relating to pencils and other writing-related products. An example is the “check protector” machine, an early and ingenious protection against forgery which is educating and amusing, although somewhat esoteric. While pen filling systems and basic mechanics are touched on, they are not looked at in detail; in view of the author’s plainly stated intention to release this information in future volumes, this is not surprising, but should be mentioned.

The book is heavily illustrated, with the same quality photographs and CAD drawings as the web site. Custom-produced to illustrate their respective entries, they go a long way to making this reference the first one we reach for. It should be noted, however, that the ebooks do not include any of the higher-resolution, enlargeable ones from the web site; all are frustratingly small, and at 96 dots-per-inch resolution. The iPad issue, in particular, does not support any more than the most cursory zooming (which bounces back to original size as soon as the users lets go of the screen), although this cannot be blamed on Binder.

The book’s hyperlinks, while a good idea, are often frustrating. Patents link directly to the US Patent & Trademark Office, which is handy. What is not handy is again not the author’s fault: Apple devices will apparently never display the patents, as none of our iPad browsers seem to display the QuickTime content. Had I been aware of this, like the lack of image enlargement, I would never have bothered with the iPad version of the book. Internally, however, links are used to great effect for cross-indexing.

There are a few shortcomings to be expected in a self-published book. Cross-indexing is well done, but sometimes there are no return links in an entry, which makes one think twice about casual exploration: it might be difficult to return to whence one started. In several places the photos were badly out of place (particularly the “S” section). Occasionally there are references to non-existent content (“View descriptions and filling instructions here”) which seem to have tagged along from the online content. None of these shortcomings is a deal-breaker, but in aggregate they are frustrating enough to make one wish the author had just hired a decent editor.

Other issues arise when comparing different formats of the book, across platforms. Some photos in the iPad issue are not present in the Kindle version(perhaps this is the “enhanced” part mentioned by the author’s web site?) Link formatting was occasionally inconsistent in the iPad issue. The Kindle tablet reader lacks the navigation tools of the desktop software, with no alphabetical index or table of contents; one simply has to drag through the content in the hopes of landing near the entry one wants to find. (We were unable to compare the Nook issue of the book, as Barnes & Noble will not sell to non-US residents, and the author would not provide a review copy.)

To be fair, some of the platform-related failings cannot be blamed on the author, and third-party improvements in software may help the presentation and navigation of his product. However, it is abundantly clear that Binder is very aware of digital rights management (DRM), as the only avenues of purchase—and available formats—are for very restricted use, within proprietary software. While this marketing choice is understandable, it means that these shortcomings are something that readers will be forced to live with, rather than being allowed to choose from among the better-quality reading software that is available for books released in rights-free formats. And that Damocletian choice is something that any ebook author or publisher must make, but with an awareness of the subsequent consequences.

Despite any shortcomings, this book is a valuable reference, and one that no pen collector, historian, or technician should be without. The amount of effort in compiling the historical information alone is staggering, and the modest price is a bargain. While each electronic issue has it’s limitations, we whole-heartedly recommend the book itself. We are thankful that Binder has taken the time to preserve this information for the pen community’s lasting benefit. Hopefully the author will learn from the issues arising in this ebook, and make the needed improvements in subsequent volumes in the series.

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