Ted Bishop’s new book, The Social Life of Ink is “part cultural history, part memoir, and part travelogue” and explores a substance so common we barely notice it. It offers a rich and imaginative discovery of how ink has shaped culture and why it is here to stay. 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. Winner of the Wilfrid Eggleston Award for Nonfiction at the 2015 Alberta Literary Awards held this past May in Edmonton.
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.
The Social Life of Ink is both highly personal and exceedingly relatable. Bishop intersperses accounts of various ink-stained wretches with his own experiences that have nothing to do with ink: meeting his Asian parents-in-law (his wife, Hsing, is Taiwanese), trying to stay sober at a Chinese “business lunch” and overdosing on noxious green tobacco snuff in Samarkand. Literary references abound, from Roland Barthes to T.S. Eliot, Little Red Riding Hood to Virginia Woolf. (He is an English prof, after all.)
About the Author:
Ted Bishop also authored of the GG-nominated Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books, a Canadian bestseller. He publishes articles on bookstores, archives, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. He edited the Shakespeare Head critical edition of Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and produced The Bloomsbury Group documents volume for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. He also compiled the Virginia Woolf Chronology and wrote the Virginia Woolf volume for the Macmillan Modern Novelists series. Ted Bishop lives in Edmonton, teaches at the University of Alberta, and writes with a fountain pen.