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History Civilization

The Social Life of Ink

Culture Wonder And Our Relationship With The Written Word

by (author) Ted Bishop

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2014
Civilization, Literary, Typography
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2014
    List Price

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A rich and imaginative discovery of how ink has shaped culture and why it is here to stay

Ink is so much a part of daily life that we take it for granted, yet its invention was as significant as the wheel. Ink not only recorded culture, it bought political power, divided peoples, and led to murderous rivalries. Ancient letters on a page were revered as divine light, and precious ink recipes were held secret for centuries. And, when it first hit markets not so long ago, the excitement over the disposable ballpoint pen equalled that for a new smartphone—with similar complaints to the manufacturers.

Curious about its impact on culture, literature, and the course of history, Ted Bishop sets out to explore the story of ink. From Budapest to Buenos Aires, he traces the lives of the innovators who created the ballpoint pen—revolutionary technology that still requires exact engineering today. Bishop visits a ranch in Utah to meet a master ink-maker who relishes igniting linseed oil to make traditional printers’ ink. In China, he learns that ink can be an exquisite object, the subject of poetry, and a means of strengthening (or straining) family bonds. And in the Middle East, he sees the world’s oldest Qur’an, stained with the blood of the caliph who was assassinated while reading it.

An inquisitive and personal tour around the world, The Social Life of Ink asks us to look more closely at something we see so often that we don’t see it at all.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Ted Bishop is a professor of English literature and film studies at the University of Alberta. His first book, Riding with Rilke, was a Canadian bestseller and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

Editorial Reviews

"The history of ink and pens and the entire culture of writing by hand is a fantastic and (you knew this was coming) indelible subject for a book. But in the hands of Ted Bishop, one of Canada’s best and most entertaining writers, the subject becomes a thing of rare beauty—and, best of all, a story you won’t be able to put down. A brilliant accomplishment." - Ian Brown, author of The Boy in the Moon

“Ink as the medium is also the message and in The Social Life of Ink, the hugely talented Ted Bishop offers a spellbinding, sophisticated, surprising and deeply satisfying exploration of ink—making ink, writing in cursive, calligraphy or print, Islam’s elevation of ink to the spiritual realm, and finally, wistful reflections on the renaissance of ink. The Social Life of Ink has brought me the peace of understanding some of my own eccentricities; for example, why I can only write outlines with inky pens or runny gel. It’s also sent me racing to buy a bottle of real ink for my fountain pen, neglected though much loved, and now an object of reverence.” - Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar and A History of Marriage
“In this latest quixotic, erudite, and entertaining adventure, Ted Bishop ambles from Budapest to Buenos Aires, and from Samarkand to Istanbul and New York City, scattering allusions to Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, and Orhan Pamuk as he wanders. Bishop transforms the conventional travel memoir into an unpredictable narrative of quirky intelligence and good humour. More, please.” - Ken McGoogan, award-winning and internationally published author
“Who would have imagined that an exploration of ink could lead a man to Samarkand, Buenos Aires, Utah and Tibet? In all these places, and many others, Ted Bishop reveals how the act of writing represents not just a flow of ideas but the condensed expression of a culture. His constantly surprising look at the craft, art and spirit of ink is both quirky and humane, both inventive and wise.” - Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages and The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English
“Part travel narrative, part hidden history, part cultural exploration, The Social Life of Ink is a fascinating book, with writing as tactile and fluid as ink rolling across rice paper.” - Will Ferguson, Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of 419

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