This is the first post about what we will call “Revolutionary Reading,” i.e., books that have some bearing on pencils and the Revolution. All Revolutions need their pamphlets, chapbooks and other volumes, even if such poetry or prose is not necessarily akin to some sort of doctrine.
It is only appropriate that the first such post be on Professor Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. This book is widely available in trade paperback, and the current edition is actually a very well-designed book itself, with a durable cover with very nice graphics. The height is actually longer relavtive to the width than more books, and this gives it a pleasing grip and span.
The Pencil is a book about engineering told through the sustained example of the pencil. What you get is the story of the pencil, from its origins in England in the sixteenth century to the pencil industry of the late twentieth century and everything in between. Professor Petroski covers graphite discoveries, the production of pencil “leads,” wood, erasers — and there is even an entire chapter devoted to my personal gadget, the pencil sharpener.
The text is extremely engaging, even though we non-engineers might be tempted to be wary of reading a book about engineering. In my own field (philosophy), I can certainly spot a boring book. But take my word for it: this is an exciting book for anyone who uses, likes or admires pencils. Far from being boring, it reads like an epic novel, with the protagonist and hero being the pencil, with other heroes that help the pencil along the way.
While it seems that pencils are simple objects at first glance, Professor Petroski shows that they are anything but simple, as he details the technological advances and engineering geniuses who have brought us our wooden warrior. Do you know why, for instance, Incense Cedar is the preferred wood for making quality pencils? Do you know what people used for erasers prior to rubber ones? Or just how long it took for sharpeners (as we know them) to appear on the scene? If you give The Pencil a good read, you will know all this and more.
Certainly, having some understanding of what forces, minds and inventions have brought us pencils affords us a much greater appreciation for the humble tool that many us take for granted. If you are intersted in learning more about our graphite champion and/or in reading an enlightening and entertaining book, then The Pencil is for you.