We love Rad and Hungry at Pencil Revolution. Those good folks are continually spreading The Pencil Message and gathering pencils from afar to share with Like Minded Individuals. Plus, Hen sent my daughter a box of really cool pencils last year that Charlotte still uses and talks about. So my ears were already open to Awesomeness when this was posted, and I was, well, moved. Please, Comrades, read Hen’s post about how she got into pencils. It will strike a chord with a lot of Comrades.
Heather has been reviewing pencils for quite a while now, and I have been thoroughly enjoying her reviews — being a reader of her blog for literally years. A recent post really struck a chord with the Pencil Lover in me:
“For whatever reason, pencils have a charm for me that pens, even fountain pens and inks, just don’t. They seem friendlier, somehow. Homelier. More comfortable. You can always count on them to write. You don’t have to worry about the ink drying up, or about tricky issues like feathering, bleed through, drying times, fading, or waterproofness. You can break them in half and they still write. You can forget about them for a decade or two in the back of your desk drawer and they’ll still write. If you take notes in pencil, you can count on them to last, unless someone burns them or goes after them with an eraser. You can’t always count on that with ink.”
I feel like I should add some sort of commentary in an Academic way to justify this quotation. But Heather’s piece is very well-put, perfectly, already. Check out the rest of the post here.
How is your memory? When it comes to certain things, my memory is like a steel trap; but otherwise, it’s more like a soggy noodle. I’ve always been impressed by my friends who can quote things verbatim, especially long works of poems. My one friend can recite Poe’s The Raven from heart, and I had another friend who recited Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while we were sailing on the Chesapeake one day (a perfect setting).
But memory and poetry have a long, interlinked history—and some may even argue genesis—together, going back to the first poets, who most likely sang the epics from memory accompanied by a lyre. And during Shakespeare’s time, it was pub game to begin reciting a line of poetry from memory, and your partner had to finish the poem, or so I remember one of my English teachers telling me. (More here.)
Note: The friend who can recite “The Raven” by heart is Yours Truly. I double mastered it when my daughter was small and didn’t like the light on for reading sometimes but still wanted to hear poetry.* But Coleridge by heart — that’s impressive!
I think an interesting feat of Pencil Memory (and I can think of a few Pencil Bloggers who can probably do it; I can’t) would be to recite the Pencil Dynasties from the great German pencil companies!
[*I am also known to spout very loud renditions of Shel Silverstein poems at people named Paul.]
Market Watch has a column called Big Spender, which was about pencils this week. At least one other pencil blogger and I were interviewed, though the piece came out a little short on quotations and details. It was largely about the expensive version of the Perfect Pencil. I am probably one of the few pencil bloggers who does not own one of these beauties, and I probably sound like I hate them in the article, which was my fault for doing an interview early in the morning on only one cup of coffee. Faber-Castell, don’t get me wrong. I would love to own a Perfect Pencil. Hopefully, one day I will. I’ve actually been using a lot of German pencils this summer, and Faber-Castell’s pencils are usually of almost unbelievable quality — and I’m holding the relatively un-luxurious Castell 9000 behind my ear right now (grade B and getting shorter everyday). I should pick up a sub$400 Perfect Pencil soon.
Wired interviewed quite a quorum of pencil bloggers for a piece on pencil sharpeners which will be out soon. We’ll link to it if we can.
With a few long-term lapses in posting*, it feels odd to outright celebrate 8 years of this here Humble Pencil Blog. We were not posting for at least half of that time, not regularly. But I think this little anniversary bears mentioning, if for nothing else, because a lot has changed in 8 years:
1) Many muchly far-too-big-numbered less American-made pencils.
3) The role and popularity of blogs.
4) Social media, etc.
5) Etc. etc. etc.
I think we’ll celebrate this week with some blasts from the proverbial past.
*[Notably, summer 2006-2010 when Your Humble Editor was writing a dissertation and "doing" two years of National Service in AmeriCorps.]
I certainly don’t mean to open a Hipster Shooting Gallery, firing at hipsters or other people. Nor — given the fact that hipsters seem to adopt things I like (beards, rye whiskey, bikes, etc.) and the subsequent fact that I probably look like an older and wider hipster — do I necessarily exclude myself from the School of the Hip. Even if I’d rather be counted out.
But I have noticed something that I’m sure many Comrades have noticed. There’s this whole “artisanal” and “craft” and “small-batch” movement going on. There’s no question. But I’ve noticed that pencils are fitting into this in bigger and bigger ways. Pencils are showing up more and more in advertising for products and services aimed at the hip crowd. I read somewhere (I forget where) that a lot of the low-fi stationery trends are “hipsterish” and that brands like Field Notes have been extra successful as a result.* To be sure, the shops that seem to cater to hipsters around my house all have a decent stationery section.
If paper is cool, certainly no ordinary writing implements will do. No Bics or gel pens. Wood and graphite and the accoutrements/accouterments thereof all the way! Take this ad (above) from a local watering hole in Baltimore. There are myriad examples I will let Comrades find on their own, for enjoyment and/or scoffing and/or edification.
I live in a pretty hip spot, and there are benefits (good coffee shops, stores with stationery) and obnoxiousness (kids telling you about the neighborhood in which you grew up like their discovered it). I’m waiting to hear someone in expensively battered boots wax philosophical about the benefits of using a “simple” pencil’s eraser as a smartphone stylus in our of our hipper coffeeshops.
I’ve been known to employ Blackwing erasers on my non-smart-but-touch-screen-phone. But never in public.
*[I might point out that Field Notes have also been successful because of their level of service.]
We are happy to share a project by Will Hudson in Illinois (300 or so miles North from original 2005-6 Pencil Revolution HQ in Carbondale). Mr. Hudson sent us a few paragraphs that speak for themselves.
“Sitting in the Woods and Why I Love the Revolution”
The fine folks here at Pencil Revolution have been so kind as to ask me to say a few words about my time sitting in the woods, and pencils.
Sittinginthewoods is an idea I came up with in June 2012 and began in earnest on a trip to Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park around mid-July. The goal of the project is simple: commit myself to getting back in touch with nature by taking time to go out, sit in the woods, and write about it. I decided to put together a blog, take some pictures too, and try to be consistent. At the end of the year, meaning, by the time we circle around again to next July, my hope is that I’ll have something to show for it. What I would love is to get enough material, and enough support, to be able to raise the funds to print up a batch of “Companion Guides to Sitting in the Woods” through Scout Books. And then I’d like to give them away.
But what of the pencils? Honestly, at the outset of the project, I wasn’t thinking about pencils at all. I had my PaperMate Profile, my moleskine, and I was good to go. Or so I thought. This changed almost immediately when, sitting in that old-growth forest with Sugar Maple and Northern Hemlock all around, I realized that this plastic pen with rubber grip was wrong – it felt wrong, it looked wrong, and I knew it just wasn’t going to cut it.
Bottom line, I decided, is that you just can’t spend your time sitting around in the woods, reading Aldo Leopold, and expect to compose a communicable and personal version of a Land Ethic with a bunch of disposable plastic pens.
And so I went in search of pencils. No plastic, not mechanical, but wooden, finely made pencils. Thus, I stumbled across the Revolution. I was amazed to discover this community of pencil lovers. I pored over the blogs, read all the reviews, tried to learn the vernacular, and finally settled on a box of Palomino BlackWing 602s. My writing life has not been the same since.
These days, I’ve taken to doing most, if not all, of my writing by hand, in pencil, and I’m enamored by the idea of a handwritten hardcopy of everything that eventually makes it up on the blog. I’m not a purist, by any means, which is fine because that’s not the point. The point is in taking the time to do this thing. SITW is about carving out a niche in my life where I consciously take the time to sit still and listen, to reflect, to write, and to share. It only seems sensible that pencils would be implicated in all of this.
In a way, the pencil and the paper have become as much a part of this project as the woods and fields themselves. They require time and are markers of time, either through breezes and seasons, or the wearing down of a point. Attached to a post in the basement of our old bungalow here outside of Chicago is an ancient Boston KS sharpener. It’s likely been there for 30 years or more; it was here when we arrived, and it has become significant in a way that I would have never imagined. It’s a great devourer of pencils, but an unexpected treasure nonetheless. Similarly, I have discovered that there is always something unexpected that happens when you take the time to sit. You become more aware of the rhythm of the light, the movement of the leaves, and all the living, breathing things that surround you. Every time I’ve gone out, and life does tend to get in the way of this from time to time, but every time I’ve gone out I’ve discovered something new.
When it comes down to it, and I think that many Comrades would agree, be it with pencils and journals, or sitting around in the woods, it’s all about attempting to create and sustain a space in your day to day that meaning may adhere to, a space apart from this frenetic and incoherent present of which we’re so accustomed. We all know that out here in the web there are endless paths to wander and spaces to linger; however, there are no places to sit. What I hope to accomplish for myself, and what I hope to encourage in others, boils down to finding, or creating, your own space, making your own meanings, and engaging more deeply with the world around you.
That being said, seek out quality pencils, embrace your Comrades, and viva la révolution!
(Text, images W.H. Used with kind permission.)
Harvard University is hosting an exploration of note-taking called TAKE NOTE. Comrades can view the exhibits online, if you are too far from Cambridge to see them in person. One of the exhibits features the Brazil notebook of one of my very favorite philosophers, William James, and Thoreau’s pencils are also on display. This exhibit and conference are among the myriad reasons I wish I could visit my home (Massachusetts) of two years this autumn.
On this day in 1817, one of my heroes was born: Henry David Thoreau (born David Henry). Thoreau’s contributions to pencil making in America are well documented. He developed (whether by himself or via a book is debated) the clay/graphite core and grading system that survives in the United States, and he invented a way to grind graphite more finely.
For more great information on Thoreau and pencils, Comrades are urged to check out The Days of Henry Thoreau and also Prof. Petroski’s The Pencil.
More also at La Vie Graphite (including photos of an actual Thoreau pencil) and also at Pencil Revolution, on Thoreau’s surveys and the machine in the wetland.
(Pencil in top photo is available at the gift shop at Walden Pond and was purchased in summer 2011.)
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
by David Rees
Mr. David Rees was kind enough to send us a review copy of his new book through his publisher, and we were eager to devour and review it. Mr. Rees has been making waves in the pencil world since opening his Artisanal Pencil Sharpening business in 2010. Just as that venture is surely no joke, John Hodgman assures, us in his foreword to the book, that the volume in question is surely no joke either:
So yes: YOU WILL LEARN THE PROPER WAY TO SHARPEN A PENCIL in this book. No joke (Rees 10).
Certainly, it is possible to seriously deliver information to other people while at the same time being ironic and downright hilarious. Some of the best teachers I have had certainly knew this to be true. To suggest that the book cannot be “serious” and really “about” how to sharpen pencils just because it is presented…the way that it is really amounts to precluding “real” information from anything that is funny. Such would be a sad world indeed. Boring, at least. In this case, the humor in Mr. Rees’ book functions as the proverbial “spoonful of sugar” – because, let’s face it: no matter how much we like pencils, an entire book based on the proper way[s] to sharpen them would likely wind up being moderately mind-numbing to a lot of people, even Comrades.
The question that most Comrades probably want answered about this book is: Will I learn something about sharpening pencils that I did not already know? Well, if not, then you probably have a lot to teach us, and I invite you to Charm City to do so. While some suggestions (like cleaning a burr sharpener with a toothbrush) might seem silly at first, I suspect this initial hint of the ridiculous comes from the strangeness of being overly fond of (ahem, obsessed with) pencils in the first place, so that we find ourselves seeking the best way to put points onto them. Personally, I am Okay with this outlook (and a toothbrush works great the clean The Machine on my bookshelf). Again, for myself, I learned a better way to approach sharpening a pencil with a knife, to be sure, and I will never again wonder how to use a wall-mounted sharpener that is higher than my merely average height can reach.
Of course, there are chapters one could view as humorous, such as the directions on the proper way to “use” an electric pencil sharpener, humor I cannot render justly in this review. Suffice it to say that it involves breaking and entering and a succession of hammers. Mr. Rees’ sense of irony and humor still suffuse the entire book.
Still, being trained in [academic] philosophy*, I find myself wondering what could be beneath the surface of this book, even if it is really “about” sharpening pencils. Mr. Thoreau’s Walden, for example, certainly admits to many different readings, beneath instruction and accounting. One such reading I have come to prefer of Mr. Rees’ book is that of being subtly critical of our era of mechanization and…globally sourced products.
In a footnote on page 29, Mr. Rees comments that “Made in USA” is a mark of a quality pencil. When one considers how rare American-made pencils are these days, this comment seems to imply that quality pencils are becoming rare in the United States in general. No matter how much darker and smoother the new Chines Dixons are (I find the Mexican versions scratchy, light and all but worthless), they are not really Dixons to me. The pencil’s “Americanness” was such a part of its identity – which might also mean its quality – that I can’t look at the current Dixons I have around the same way as I could six years ago, not without forcing myself to ignore their “story.”
Mr. Rees also comes out and criticizes our era outright. He writes:
This is not to say that we should take imperfection as our goal. One of the dysfunctions of our age is the conflation of shoddiness with authenticity, and we must resist this confusion in our practice – especially in those circumstances where sloppy craftsmanship could diminish a pencil’s utility (Rees 52).
But perhaps we can best see Mr. Rees’ criticism of modern culture in Chapter 13: How to Use an Electric Pencil Sharpener. He lists ways in which a troubadour-esque Artisanal Pencil Sharpener might identify a home in which an electric sharpener resides. Two of the criteria are: “Closely mowed lawn indicates a preoccupation with orderliness, and yet…Disorderly porch indicates limited free time” (Rees 132). A home containing an electric pencil sharpener is inhabited by individuals who want order but who do not have time for it. Whether the lack of time is from over-employment (from a recession in which more than one job is necessary or from a habit of spending too much time earning money to buy materials and services which one does not need) or badly invested energies and attention, this seems to be a symptom of our age. We want order/peace/etc. but do not go after this with what would amount to any serious vigor.
I might venture so far as to claim that a lot of the attention which Mr. Rees has received as a result of his business and his book proves him largely correct about our culture. We are not a people who enjoy craftsmanship in itself – at least not enough to actually pay for it. Comrades can witness the retreat of American pencil manufacturing in the name of profit and/or “lower prices!” to see the value which our society places on quality work – even when rejecting it means that the company for which our own Norman Rockwell painted ads moves production out of the USA. And, with the trend in “artisanal” stuff and services and foods, we see that we are seldom even willing to pay for craftsmanship – when we do – for its own sake. Rather, we pay a premium for artisanal coffees and foot scrubs because of a fad. Do we do this to assuage our consumer guilt because our hand-crafted breadbox is full of corn-fructosed breadstuffs from a discount store? Are we really connecting with craftspeople or our past/roots? Are we merely displaying our goodness for all to see when we buy hand-roasted spices? To be sure, there are those whose sincerity might match that of Mr. Rees. But I think a lot of people are paying attention because this is a person who truly takes craftsmanship seriously.
In any case, I can think of several reasons that I enjoyed this book and why I would heartily recommend it to Comrades everywhere. Stepping down from my accidental trip to the soapbox: This book is really a must-read for anyone interested in pencils. And there are well-placed lines likely to render you, as I was, doubled over in laughter. But what I enjoyed most about Mr. Rees’ book was reading something written with such sincerity by a person who obviously does what he does with care. His carefulness spreads onto the pages and leaves me regretful that I am not really careful enough about anything to write a whole book about it.
* Edit: I realize now how pretentious this probably sounds. My academic background is usually just the excuse I give for not having [m]any “skills.”
R. Buckminster Fuller is famous the world over for his geodesic dome designs and for his unrelenting questioning that makes him sound more like a philosopher than anything else. When he summed up his search for what one might call “truth,” he uses the metaphor of the pencil.
“Buckminster Fuller never gave up his searh to find ‘Nature’s pencil.’ Like so many geniuses, he was constantly searching for the essence of how things worked best. And when he found such solutions in Nature, he applied them to his projects. Thus, we have his most famous invention – the geodesic dome – modeled after structures found in Nature.
Still, the question continues to be in the quest. Fuller and many others constantly seek the next evolution of ideas, and the really cleaver people always look to Nature first. Were all humans to do that, we would realize that there are enough resources to go around, and what we need to do is be very careful in using exactly enough. Not too much and not too little.
Nature’s pencil is such a sustainable model. She writes and draws with a precision and exactness that humans have difficulty understanding or modeling. Still, people like Bucky and many of today’s great minds continue to search because they know that the search is as important as reaching the goal.” (More.)
This resonates with me, personally, since one of my grad schools was where Professor Fuller taught and worked from 1959 to 1970. He’s still a legend around those parts.
Today’s post comes from Brian E. Manning, a writer and cyclist who works in Porland’s Central Library. Brian is also the editor’s good friend and even was also his roommate in college!
Robert Walser’s Microscripts. [New Directions, 2010. $24.95]
Robert Walser (1878-1956) was a German-speaking Swiss Writer. His writing was admired by Kafka, and Hesse, to name a few names of notoriety. I became acquainted with Walser through his short stories, as well as his acclaimed novel, Jakob Von Gunten, both published by NYRB books. His writings are whimsical, quirky, and fanciful — showing an acute understanding of human nature through subversive, fairytale-like backgrounds. In 1929, Walser admitted himself into a mental ward, and remained there for the rest of his life, essentially ending his professional writing endeavors, quipping to a friend that he was there to be mad, and not to write. However, after Walser died–on one of his habitual walks, in the snow, (hotos of which exist for morbid perusal on the Internet) it was found that he actually continued writing while in the hospital, albeit, in as subtle a form as physically possible: that is, on fragments of paper, in the tiniest of handwriting.
At first, the executor of his estate thought that these tiny markings where evidence of Walser’s mental instability — an undecipherable loony/secret code — but, it was later discovered that Walser was writing in a miniaturized Kurrent script, stemming from the medieval ages, that he had learned as a schoolboy, as was the custom of the time. From there, it took some dedicated scholars, some magnification, and some linguistic guesswork and translation to yield us the English instalment of this endeavor: Microscripts.
I have been fascinated with Walser’s story of late, and have been looking forward to getting my hands on this book. For the most part, the writings are small sketches and musings, sometimes unfinished, but this is understandable since Walser most likely never meant for them to be “read” (deciphered) by us, which makes them feel even more intimate to read. Although they are brief (sometimes not exceeding 5-6 pages in length) Walser’s wit and style are still evident in these works–whether he is writing of marriage proposals, or the experience of listening to the radio, or putting characters at play in their settings, Walser’s humane style abounds in these small scripts. I find that the real treasure of Microscripts, however, are the sporadic color facsimiles of the microscripts themselves included throughout the book. These examples of Walsers diminutive sketches not only show how impossibly tiny his writing was (1-2 millimeters in height), but also conveys how visually stunning they are. Whether written on the back of a business card, or on a letter, they are a fine of example of visual art rendered through small script. (It is also worth mentioning that there are plenty of footnotes throughout this book, giving more detail behind Walser and the individual microscripts; and for those of you who can read German, the original, enlarged German renderings are also included in the back of the book.)
But, you may be asking, why should readers of Pencil Revolution care about Walser and his tiny writing habits? For that matter, why did Walser even start writing in this fashion? I was surprised to find that the answer to this, as given in the intro of Microscripts, lay in the formative power of yielding a pencil. According to Walser, he found that using a pen became a physical & mental stumbling block, one that he could only overcome by using a pencil, as wrote to a friend:
With the aid of my pencil I was better able to play, to write; it seemed this revived my writerly enthusiasm. I can assure you I suffered a real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil. [Microscripts, pg 13.]
Although this does not necessarily explain why Walser started shrinking his script, he definitely found his voice again through using a pencil; this is of such critical importance that the original six-volume German edition of the microscripts is entitled Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet, or “From the Pencil Zone.” In Walser’s Microscripts, then, we find a man whose salvation was imparted through this modest writing utensil. I can’t help wondering, however, how often he would have to sharpen his pencil in order to write such tiny script…?
[Photo, C. Rondo; Microscript, B. Manning. Used with kind permission.]
“I have a mild obsession with pencils, especially the General Pencil Semi-Hex 498 2 2/4. Mmm, ceder. Some years ago, I needed a pencil to mark up a book I was reading for seminary, and went looking for one. I did not find one pencil. I found fourteen scattered through the house. I would have stopped at one, but my curiosity was piqued to see all the different brands and styles that we’d accumulated. I decided that I couldn’t just pick one at random, I would pick the best one. So I sharpened them all and put them to the test. Of course I had to smell each one before writing, just to take note of the “nose” (the winner had that powerful ceder aroma that true pencil aficionados prefer. I think.)….
….Low-tech wonders stand out when compared to their replacements, the products that are manufactured to improve and supplant them. I think of all the ergonomic mechanical pencils and gel-grip disposable pens, none of which impress me or replace my pencil. The pencil has a beautiful simplicity to it, and an efficiency, and 95 percent of it is compostable (versus the landfill that is the fate of plastic writing tools). And there is some mystery to the pencil too. How does rubber (named for it’s ability to “rub” pencil marks away) erase the marks of the graphite without causing it to smudge? It’s the original word processor, complete with backspace.”
Stay tuned for the Pencil Revolution review of General’s Semi-Hex pencils, which we’re hard at work testing and enjoying!
From everyone’s favorite pencil tome, The Pencil (by Professor Petroski). Pencils are:
“…a metaphorical bridge that can carry from mind to paper the lines of a daring real bridge, which can cause jaws to drop, or the words of a daring new philosophy, which can cause eyebrows to arch.”
By my alter-ego, who is a [semi-] normal person who does more than just admire pencils.
Drawn on a pizza box with a Faber-Castell GRIP 2001 (HB) in the dark while watching “Globe Trekker.” I swear I can usually write/draw at least a little better. But damn it, drawings on pizza boxes are funny, and I had to share.
See a larger image and complete story here.
[Image, J.G. Used with my own permission.]