Review: The Social Life of Ink

Posted 13 November, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 4 Comments

The Social Life of Ink
By: Ted Bishop
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of the publishers via GoodReads First Reads Programme

Ted Bishop has made a career of investigating original texts, poring over stains on paper made by some of the greatest minds in literature. But what of the ink itself? This miraculous invention has mediated the flow of our culture, yet ink is so common that it is invisible. Bishop sets out to reveal the secrets of ink. From Budapest to Buenos Aires, he traces the lives of the innovators who created the ballpoint pen—revolutionary technology only decades ago. He visits an off-the-grid ranch in Utah to meet a master ink- maker who explodes linseed oil. In China, he discovers that ink could be an exquisite object, the subject of poetry and a means of entry to the emperor’s court. And in Uzbekistan, he sees the world’s oldest Qur’an, stained with the blood of the caliph who was assassinated while reading it.

Part travelogue, part memoir of personal discovery, 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

When I first saw this book on GoodReads, I thought it was really cool and interesting because it was a subject I didn’t really see in the nonfiction sections of the bookstores. Sure, you learn a bit about ink and art and Gutenberg’s printing press and literacy rates in history class, but unless you studied book-making or this element of cultural history, it’s just something you don’t often think about. So I was pretty excited when I learned that I won an ARC of this book via GoodReads. This book was released on 4 November 2014.

The Social Life of Ink is a delightful read, indeed part-travelogue, part-investigation into the history and development of familiar writing devices–the pen, the printing press–not only in Western culture, but also the Middle Eastern and Chinese traditions. The uses, approaches, and mindset behind the writing process and how they came about creating ink to write were all very interesting, and reflective of their own traditions and cultures. As someone who writes a lot, I never really stopped to consider how the pen came about, so learning about the inventors and the process they went through in developing the ballpoint was especially informative.

The travelogue aspect of the novel was also very interesting, from Hungary to China to Central Asia (!). The latter was especially intriguing and a surprise for this reader as it’s not a typical tourist destination. So the author’s account of his adventures in Tashkent and elsewhere in the region–including his experiences with the culture–were really interesting. I also learned a lot from his adventures to the other locations mentioned, as well as the historical anecdotes featured. There was a lot of the latter in his chapters on China, which lends back to a lot of the philosophy and mindset going into the writing process of the society.

The last segment of the book focuses more on the various uses of ink in our present society, and whether it has a place in the future. This section felt a bit more like a mish-mash–the chapter on tattoos in particular felt a little out of place after most of the book covered the use of ink as a writing (on paper) medium–but nonetheless reinforces the different ways in which ink is used. I also wished there was an epilogue/postscript to wrap up the themes and observations in the book about what he learned from his travels and the future of ink, though ending with the story of his class making ink was also a nice way to wrap up the book.

I highly recommend The Social Life of Ink, it’s a very informative read about an object in our lives that I think we take for granted. There’s a lot of history and a lot more thought and culture going into ink and pens and the printed word than we realise, and I enjoyed the author’s way of investigating the subject matter and all of the adventures and experiences he came across along the way.

Rating: ★★★★★

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4 Responses to “Review: The Social Life of Ink”

    • Aww, thanks! Always up to reading intriguing titles 🙂 But yeah, this book was very informative, I hope you enjoy it should you get to it!

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