Magazine

The Idler Magazine

In Praise of the Pencil

From Ms. Alexandra Lynch, Massachusetts. November 2010.

Posted in Readers' Letters on 18 November 2010

Sir: I love pencils. I love the wood casing, the lightness of them, the sense that many hands over many centuries—eons?—have held pencils much like mine in their hands to record thoughts, hopes, even history. And still, each one becomes microscopically unique with use—the way my sharpener grinds each nub to a point, the way my hand’s warmth enters its shaft, the way I don’t but others do leave teeth marks in moments of forgetfulness or frustration or a simple desire to bite down.

What ever happened to pencils? Why are they so neglected, even rejected? They’re not part of the smart set, no. (Though positive associations do persist: You’re an artist, an architect, a builder, or a child learning to draw if you wield one.) Pens, by contrast, are jazzy. They have colour, shimmer, shine; they have gel pads and thin-thick-Sharpie possibilities; they have authority (just watch someone do a crossword puzzle in pen and you can’t help but nod in begrudging admiration).

Pens are also a commodity, a product that comes in bulk boxes. They provide a branding and promotional opportunity for dentists and drug salesmen the world over. Pens as advertising platforms are a dime a dozen (actually they’re free at your local bank). Pens once were refillable—fountain pens still are, of course, though even they have strayed from their purer roots, with disposable cartridges. Most pens now are one-use only, like so much else we buy and consume and toss right into the trash. And though the convenience is undeniable, so is the waste.

But the pencil! The elegant, understated, dutiful pencil, the stepchild of
commodification! Yes, sometimes its point snaps off, especially when you try to write supercalifragilistic or an angry letter to the editor. Easily addressed by a small, delightful globe-sharpener like the one I have. It takes up little room in my bag and provides a wonderful opportunity for zoning out. Put the nose of the pencil in the hole, twist twist twist, and go ahead, let your mind wander—to the beginnings of a grocery list or a poem, to a gone but not forgotten beau, to the beaches of Greece where someday somehow you’ll bake yourself lobsterlike and drink ouzo till dawn. And if you’re a creative DJ who likes to use found sounds, then you’ll want to press play on your digital recorder before sharpening up that tres earthy (and worthy) writing utensil. I hear a good beat.

Of course, the poetry of the pencil (and its sharpener) aside, it bears
mentioning that most pencils out there, though less plasticky than pens and no longer packing that no-no, lead (they now use graphite), are not at all
sustainable. The paint, the wood, the metal thingy that holds the eraser on –
all of dubious provenance and environmental impact. New, “greener” ones are
making their way to market that are made of clever materials like a
biodegradable eraser and renewable wood, so godspeed to them and in the
meantime, let’s use our pencils down to the quick!

I remain yours, Ms A. Lynch.

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