for 12 December 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Reading for Serious Tools

The notion that the tools and toys of
life should be easily available
sustains our culture, not to mention
our economy. That philosophy has
done well, certainly, but what's the
use of a party to which everyone's
invited? The feast of literacy has
become one of the most crowded
banquets in the 20th century.
Remember those halcyon days when
only stalwart men who dedicated
their lives to cloisters and the
service of pope and God knew the
refined pleasures of reading and
You probably don't, but Levenger
remembers for you. They're doing
their best to keep that monkish
flavor alive in a benighted world
crowded with shiny toys and ignorant
masses who can't even appreciate a
well-crafted sestina on their
plight. See the Levenger: Tools for
Serious Readers catalog and its
panoply of expensive handcrafted (or
just looking like it!) tchotchkes.
Lest their tagline conjure images of
bookbinding implements, be
forewarned that "tools" such as
"Jefferson's Compass" and the
"Portable Editor's Desk" offer
little practical use other than to
prop up an image of old-fashioned
refinement in some overly
self-conscious literary man.
Levenger shoppers suffer the same
mindset that leads otherwise
intelligent people to prefer bulky,
inconvenient leatherette (and ridged -
don't forget those ridges)
editions of old Hemingway and
Fitzgerald books, instead of the
easy and eminently useful (as useful
as Hemingway and Fitzgerald books
can be) 25-cent copies available at
most "Friends of the Library" sales
or in the dusty, sun-baked racks
outside used book stores. Low-tech,
yes, but user-friendly.
User-friendly, though, is just a bit
too friendly for people who crave
lifestyle accessories that set them
apart. And in a digital and
all-too-literate world, the classes
that crave distinction have to work
harder to set the bar. So what could
make you more special than toys that
fetishize handwriting, and
handcrafted bookcases that store not
only all your leatherbound volumes
but such "We've all got 'em but
where do we put 'em?" classics as
sextants, hand trumpets, medieval
busts, and 19th-century cameras? To
judge by the Levenger catalog, these
proto-Fetish items are making a
comeback. And why not? With the
price of global positioning systems
dropping them into the Best Buy
range, isn't it about time The
Sharper Image started carrying
Levenger has it all, and much, much
less. Nine-and-a-half-inch-high
handcrafted cast-iron models of
British Grenadiers - it would have
to be British, don't you know. A
dozen different fountain pens with
antique nibs in such models as the
"Zeppelin," the "Jerusalem," and the
"Phileas Fogg." A wide variety of
ink blotters and inspirational
paperweights with quotes from Jean
Giraudoux and Aristophanes. And, of
course, lots of things in
hand-finished wood, most in your
choice of natural cherry, dark
cherry, medium oak, and walnut.
Stock up your life with Levenger,
and pretend - like your spiritual
brethren in the Society for Creative
Anachronism - that you live in a
cleaner, better, and more difficult
Yes, even the Levenger copywriter has
to admit it: A lot of these things
are, it must be said, rather
inconvenient. Not really useful in
everyday life. Replaced for the most
part by less "elegant" but much
cheaper and more functional
substitutes, like papermates and
Bics, bricks and refrigerator
magnets, graphite and prefabricated
plastics. The Levenger shopper knows
this. His rejection of mindless and
contemptible convenience, ease of
use, and good sense makes him the
man he is. Sure, fountain pens leak
and smear - that's why, after paying
$29.95 for "artful rosewood pens and
unusual antique nibs" in order to
"experience for yourself what
writing was like for our
predecessors," you can spend another
$24.95 for a palm-size blotter with
a cherrywood top.
As the description of their $179
120-pencil set of Swiss ("with the
familiar Swiss flair for luxury and
excellence") colored pencils reads,
"No matter how much art is created
on a computer these days, nothing
can replace the satisfaction of
creating art with your own hand."
What really matters - you refined
Levenger reader, you - is just
shelling out the shekels for these
superfine Swiss pencils - never you
mind about actually making art, they
have machines that do that today.
The blurb for Levenger's $34.95
leather envelope puts it more
bluntly: "The package becomes the
product" - and the product is
snobbery by the cast-iron,
handcrafted pound.
Levenger presents a delightful modern
adaptation to the aristocratically
Luddite instinct: You don't need to
actually refrain from mucking about
in the tawdry modern world, but you
can surround yourself with
pointlessly expensive bric-a-brac
that makes you feel above it.
Instead of letting your kids waste
their time playing those unreal,
violent, and gross computer games,
teach them to play cribbage on
Levenger's $189 solid cherry board
inlaid with green, blue, and mauve
leather. It's tournament-quality,
Levenger doesn't shrink from the hard
realities of being the kind of
"serious reader" they know you,
their esteemed customer, to be.
Levenger's president himself writes
a sidebar explaining that though
fountain pens are a huge pain in the
ass, they are, in a manner the
average Joe can't understand, "a
rewarding experience... your
signature is reason enough to buy a
good pen." Luxury is for its own
sake, and fine craftsmanship - even
if it's for things as inherently
pointless as monogrammed pewter
mugs with Jefferson quotes and cast-
iron bookends in the shape of a trusty
Scottie dog - is its own reward.
Search the world over - using your
$169 Levenger's globe on a
globe-stand featuring carved images
of Protagoras, Cicero, and
Demosthenes, among others - and
you'll not find any better proof
than Levenger that complaints about
how "people don't read any more"
only mask a deeper concern: The
masses who don't appreciate these
sort of things just didn't deserve
literacy in the first place.

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk