Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor, from 161 until his death in 180AD, aged 58. He kept a book of his personal reflections and ideas, intended for his own encouragement and guidance. It was not meant for publication, but was to become Meditations, one of the greatest of all works of philosophy. Written in Greek, it was comprised of 12 books, or chapters. I recently completed a writing project, to copy out the text from an English translation, in pen and ink. I thought I would share a few thoughts on this exercise.
I. The Inspiration
One of the good things to come out of 2020, for me, was finding a post on Instagram by Kimberly (@allthehobbies) who was copying out the entire text of Meditations using fountain pens, writing in a print style like a typewriter font. She changes pens and inks every two pages, recording the combination used at the end of each spread, at the foot of the right hand page and would occasionally post pictures of these spreads on Instagram. The page that I first noticed was on 15 June 2020, when she had used a purple Opus 88 Picnic, with Kobe 57 Himeajisai/Hydrangea ink. She was using a journal of Tomoe River, 52gsm paper.
I was impressed at how neat and uniform her lettering was, as though it had been printed. But as well as that, the text itself jumped out at me: I read a few lines and found the content so direct and engaging that I wanted to read more. The thought that she was to copy out an entire book, seemed too daunting to contemplate. And yet gradually, I resolved to copy her idea and do the very same thing. I liked the thought that I could read some philosophy whilst at the same time, improve my penmanship, create some colourful spreads of writing and get some added use from my accumulated fountain pens and inks in the process. I love to write with a fountain pen and thought that this sounded an enjoyable and worthwhile challenge.
II. The Preparation.
Naturally, I already had plenty of different pens and inks to use. I had to track down a copy of Meditations and found it in our local Waterstones, at the Brent Cross shopping centre. I bought the Penguin Classics paperback edition, translated with notes by Martin Hammond and first published in 2006. For a notebook to write it in, I wanted something which would not run out before I reached the end. I decided on an A4 format. I found a nice hard cover A4 Notebook, Ruled, with 192 pages, and what looked like a pleasant paper surface for fountain pens. It had stitched binding and so could be opened flat. It was from “5 Star Office” and I bought it in a delightful shop, the Eton Stationers, in High Street, Eton, Windsor. (This is also a great place for fountain pen ink, mechanical pencils and all manner of stationery goodies).
One issue for me with A4 notebooks, is that as a lefty overwriter, I would turn the book about 60 degrees anticlockwise to write in it (“uphill”) and almost always dog-ear the left hand side whilst writing on the right hand page. However, the plan for this project was to write in a print style, (like Kimberly’s) which would require me to use my left-handed underwriting style, with elbow tucked in and with the notebook straight like a normal person.
I paginated the notebook and tried out the paper with a number of different pens and inks from my pen cups. I was encouraged that the paper surface was smooth but not unpleasantly coated and that it resisted bleedthrough for all the pens that I tried, with one exception, a Pilot V pen, single use fountain pen whose black ink seems to be specially formulated not to dry out for years but makes it very runny so that it soaks through paper. It had 32 rows per page with a sensible 8mm row height which I like.
One other essential purchase was a book stand. I found a good selection online and ordered a wooden one, which could be adjusted easily for the viewing angle and which could also be folded flat for storage. It had a fold down wooden ledge for the book to rest on and two strong metal flexible arms to hold the pages open. I wrote out the alphabet at the back of my notebook in both upper and lower case, to practice the shapes. I was all set.
III. The Execution.
Having gathered together all the ingredients, I was eager to get started on page 1. Deciding that there would be plenty of time to improve, I waded straight in. It was a novelty to write in a print style rather than cursive and to use a type-writer style font, which I loosely called “Times New Roman” perhaps because of the word association with Marcus’s job. It soon became apparent that this is not as easy as it sounds. First, I had not really practised enough to decide upon a consistent relative height of my letters. There is something called the x height, which is the height of the letter x and other lower case letters which do not have bits sticking up or down. (See how I have learned the terminology?) I always struggled with the lower case h, for example and was not sure where I stood with the letter t. Then there are the serifs. I usually tried to include these, but would sometimes add them at the end of a word, or do them all together at the end of a line (when I could get my arm ready for a series of cross-strokes) or even do a few lines together. Occasionally with some of the pens I used, I skipped the serifs on the basis that if they were not horizontal, they just made the writing look messy. Sometimes I would put a serif on one leg of an m, or an h, but not the other.
Another difficulty that I discovered is that lefty-underwriting is not natural for me and I have a difficulty even in making a perpendicular line, say for a letter L or K. Instead, it would lean a little bit backwards or forwards, turning my page into something more like a ransom note, than a work of philosophy.
I learned that pace is important: go too fast and the writing becomes scrappy. But go too slow and it can look too laboured and shaky. Rather like learning to touch-type, the best course is to find a steady rate at which you can keep going, accurately and carefully but not too fast or slow. Write at a speed at which you can think ahead, not in fast bursts.
It soon becomes apparent that copying out a text in this way, is very different from reading a book. I would look at the line of text and hold the next group of words in my head, or try to, in order to write the next three or four words. It is slow going, because there is often a little delay in finding your place again in the book when you look back up at it.
Perhaps the worst danger was of tackling this when I was too sleepy. I do like to relax after work by sitting down with a notebook and a few fountain pens, but there is a risk of nodding off to sleep and slipping out of consciousness whilst still writing. This is not good if Marcus is expounding on a theme with long sentences, or lots of Greek or Roman names which are unfamiliar to me and sometimes sentences which go on for line after line.
A page of my A4 notebook could take me about an hour. I did not write against the clock but would like to finish a page or a two page spread in one sitting, as I looked forward to finishing it off with the name of the ink and the pen. I did not map out in advance, which pens and ink I would use but just flicked back a few pages to see which I had not used lately and would then choose something out of my pen cup.
I put up a few photos of my efforts on Instagram . I was encouraged by Kimberly who commented “It doesn’t take too long to see improvements, just don’t beat yourself up over every letter that doesn’t look like what you want it to. Celebrate the ones that do.” She remains modest over her excellent calligraphy (which is far neater than mine) and cites @itsrainingpens as one of her inspirations.
Like Kimberly, I really loved having this project to pick up from time to time. I did not come to it every day and would sometimes leave it a week or more, or at other times I would have several long sessions on consecutive days. You can make your own rules.
At times, I was pleasantly surprised at how a paragraph of text looked on my page. At other times, when the letter sizes were too erratic and sloping back and forth, I wondered at the point of it all. But there is always the thought that each new page, even each new word, is a chance to do better, literally to turn over a new leaf.
Gradually, I found myself advancing through the book. I did some calculations occasionally, cross-multiplying, to estimate on what page of my notebook I would reach the end (e.g. if page 86 of the book is page 103 of my notebook, then the end (page 122) of the book will be 146. Sure enough I was to finish half way down my page 145.
IV. The completion.
It was nice and strangely momentous to get to the last page. I had started in August 2020 and finished in February 2021, after 7 months. It is pleasing to sit back and leaf back through my notebook to see all the different pens and inks that I employed. I added up a total of 44 different inks and 46 different pens used overall.
It is nice to finish something that you have started. The project saw me through the autumn and winter months. Was it the best use of my time? I think it was a worthwhile exercise, in time that I would otherwise have spent resting, watching television, listening to music or writing and tinkering with my pens and inks for the simple joy of writing.
This is not to pay a dis-service to Marcus for taking me on an incredible journey through his thoughts and reasoning in such a special and unique book. It is amazing to think that this was written almost 2,000 years ago. How often do we get to hear the innermost thoughts of a man grappling with the big universal questions that have taxed philosophers for centuries? How often can we sit and listen to a Roman Emperor? To say he was a thinker is an understatement. It is an inspiring book to read and makes me want to explore and write down my own thoughts. Now that really would be a challenge.