I’m normally not one to focus on petty complaints, but have recently noticed a flush of unsatisfactory pencils in my desk jar.
I really shouldn’t be surprised though.
Such a seemingly humble writing tool is, after all, a complex marvel when you really think about it: the crisp precision of a graphite shaft sheathed straight down the center of a sleek wooden barrel, smooth as a porcelain. Given these often overlooked complexities, it’s a wonder each pencil isn’t signed, dated and presented in a velvet-lined box. They are tiny works of splendid art, further elevated—in my way of thinking — by their utilitarianism. Art capable of creating more art is the dreamer’s ideal.
Yet, I take for granted that pencils should be cheap, plentiful, and flawless. Flawless, however, they are not.
My most recent batch—a batch carefully scrutinized before purchase—was afflicted with the dreaded loose points. No matter how gingerly I sharpened them, they wiggled. And it actually irritated me until I recognized my absurd standards. Even if my life depended on it, I would be woefully incapable of producing a single decent pencil.
Why should I expect perfection at less than two bucks a dozen?
In the days of yore (three cheers for archaic phrasing!), pencils were nothing more than crude nuggets of graphite bound with twine, sheepskin, or cloth. This evidently worked quite well until sometime around the late 1700’s when the procedure evolved to tidier methods of wood casings and glue.
And thus, pencil advancement marched forward.
The process ultimately matured into dazzling skill, attended by artisans like Henry David Thoreau, who worked in his father’s pencil-making shop, purportedly producing the finest and blackest pencils in America. One has to speculate the impact such tedious work must have kindled in young Henry. It is little wonder that he escaped to Walden Pond and so amply contemplated civil disobedience. At least he had plenty of pencils with which to philosophize.
I cringe to think what architecture, paintings, literature, maps, inventions and a thousand other splendors of the vigorous mind would have not made it past the first scribbles without a pencil.
Thomas Edison was never without one to jot down notes. Ditto for Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Leonardo di Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Laurie Lambert. (There may never be another opportunity to include my name on such a heady list, so let’s not quibble. Feel free to pencil your name in next to mine.)
As with just about any subject, entire subcultures are exposed once we start delving. So it happened with my pencil sleuthing: I uncovered a world of collectors, experts, artists, auctions, museums, and books, all entirely devoted to pencils. There is even a pencil store in New York City. Nary a pen adulterates the place. It’s as if pencils have championed a quiet renaissance.
In revisiting the merits of this unassuming tool, one cannot forget its sidekick, the ubiquitous eraser. Any commitment to permanence warrants, for most of us, a certain amount of deliberation. We humans loathe being backed into corners and the eraser provides a graceful exit.
We can dabble without restraint and back-step without consequence.
Pencils let us plunge headlong into self-expression while erasers stand ready to grant us full pardon.
Yet, if it is permanence that we seek, here’s a surprise: pencil markings will never fade and will, quite literally, outlast the paper on which they are written. Short of burning or erasing, pencil renderings can survive the ages. Graphite is the most stable form of carbon, and carbon is an element that has been around since long before our solar system was formed. Those are some pretty good credentials.
And so I forgive these wiggling pencil tips. I even forgive the occasional chalky eraser, sloppy in its task. I salute the unheralded innovators who reared this ragamuffin writing implement to respectable (if oft overlooked) status. No matter what technology beckons at our fingertips, who doesn’t regularly reach for a pencil? They require no power sources, no reboots, no updating. The more I’ve considered the sheer simplicity, the more smitten I’ve become.
I called that store in NYC this morning, and in a few days I will be the eager recipient of three American-made cedar pencils.
This may very well be the beginning of a beautiful and enduring relationship.
I can hardly wait.
Editor’s Note: Laurie Lambert fell in love with Red River in 1965. Her childhood dream came true in 1997 when the family cabin was finally completed. Throughout the year she can be found trail running, snowshoeing and devising all sorts of reasons to never leave the mountains.