Three years ago, I came across a post on the Sharpie blog — I don’t know how or why I was following Sharpie’s blog, but such were the mysteries of our universe in those long-ago days — announcing a new kind of pencil: a mechanical pencil with liquid graphite ink, with leads that could not break, whose writing was initially erasable but over time (about three days) would become semi-permanent.
Seriously: the Sharpie liquid pencil shows that somewhere, engineers are always quietly perfecting something old & great. http://j.mp/aFQHBE— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 9, 2010
Sharpie eventually had to back off some of its claims for the liquid pencil — the original promo material said pencil would become permanent like a Sharpie Marker, which isn’t quite true — but they brought them to market, and sell them for about $3 apiece. (Sadly, the reviews aren’t very good.)
People love pencils. They love them. It’s partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.
Over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen has a story about Pencil Revolution, which she quite rightly calls “The World’s Best Website About Pencils.” She lists ten representative posts, from which I’ll select my favorite five:
A review of artisanal pencil-sharpener David Rees’s book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants (“a must-read for anyone interested in pencils”)
A review of the Staedtler Norica HB pencil:
I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I’d find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is…a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can’t just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I’ve given most of them away already.
I feel like there’s something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don’t fully understand. There’s the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there’s something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand. But that’s pens and chalk and crayons and markers too, and I have completely different feelings about all of these things.
In “Why pencils?” Pencil Revolution’s founder Johnny Gamber tries to explain:
The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.
The point is that it’s best to write with what we like best, no? I’ll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That’s the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.
Maybe it’s that sense of work that’s best realized in sharpening: the continual, attentive maintenance to a thing that’s ultimately, necessarily, and even intentionally disposable. To adapt George Carlin’s observation, when you buy a pencil, you know it’s going to end badly. You’re buying a small tragedy. Caring for a pencil becomes like caring for a pet, or a person, in accelerated miniature, like in time-lapse photography.
Pencils are like love. Pencils are like us. They are free to love, free to squander, and free to give away.
I’m going to do something rare here at Kottke and open up the comments. I’ll close them down at the end of the day. Do you love pencils? Do you hate them? Why? What’s your favorite pencil? What’s your best pencil story? Did a pencil ever break your heart?