Revolutionary Reading: The Pencil.


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.

[Photos, J.G.]

10 Replies to “Revolutionary Reading: The Pencil.”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Petroski’s book when I found it in the early 90s, but felt that it needed a counterpart devoted to the discussion of how pencils have been used, and how to use them. What I was really after what the vocabulary of different pencilists, so that I too could develop techniques of stroke, pressure, rotation and whatever else someone cared to explain. I haven’t seen such a book, and would not be the person to write it. Perhaps a cross-section of PR readers would be interested in contributing tips and terminologies for they ways they use their pencils….

  2. Synergy? I saw this in a bookstore the other day and meant to e-mail you about it.

    Speaking of books and pencils, in the first Claudine book, Colette mentions pencils quite a bit, and comments several times on their smell.

    I still feel silly that all these years I thought the smell came from the graphite, never thinking it was the wood.

  3. Well, i did like the Petroski book, but, like you, I am more interested in the social and philosophical aspects of pencil use. well, maybe someone on this board with the training in the social sciences andhumanities ought to look at pencils and write about how and why humans use pencils, and what the results are.
    BTW, I queried a few students at the Univ of michigan’s Creative Writing MFA program, and unfortunately, most of them told me that they use the computer keyboard exclusively!!!!

  4. Petroski’s book is one of my favorites. Definitely a great read for a pencil fan. Then when people ask about your pencil fascination, you have the historical and scientific information to wow them.

  5. Last I checked Pearl and other art supply stores, and book stores as well, have a wide variety of books devoted to sketching and drawing with pencil. Making a pencil is complex and Petroski’s book covers that well. Using a pencil is simple. A manual is not required….

  6. petroski’s book is a great book. i saw him on the today show shortly after it was published. he came with a bunch of pencils and it seemed that the host didn’t know what to make of him. when i used to teach, i would assign it as a textbook in the humanities, because i thought it was GREAT cultural history about something everybody knows about.

  7. I would like to know more about these two pencils, year of manufacture, rarity …

    1100 j.s.staedtler “noris”
    L & C. harstmuth esquire * * * HB 1016 (made in German)

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