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David Murdock looks at pencils

Jan 14, 2024Jan 14, 2024

OK. I’ll admit it. I’m losing it just a little bit. I keep a handful of pencils next to the stack of "books to read" to use for underlining and annotating. I sharpen them about once a week or so. Last week, I found myself examining the tip of a newly-sharpened pencil for a while. I picked up one of them when I started reading and … sort of came back to myself after about 10 minutes.

Pencils, after all, are an amazing technology! That wonderful little essay from 1958 by Leonard E. Read titled "I, Pencil," illustrates that concept brilliantly. The pencil that tells its story — the essay is a "genealogy" as told to Read by the pencil — says that "I am taken for granted by those who use me" early on, but claims, "I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe …" a little later. Since reading that essay, I’ve never again taken pencils for granted.

Think about it. Pencils always work. Unless, of course, they need sharpening. To learn that skill correctly, I recommend the 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," by David Rees. I’m not joking; there is such a book. It's a hoot.

So, I was examining the tip of my newly-sharpened pencil when I just sort of got lost in thought about … the tip of that pencil. Y’all know that zig-zag pattern where the yellow part meets the exposed wooden part? What is the word for that? There's a word for the exposed wooden part — that's the "collar" of the pencil — but I can't recall if I’ve ever seen the word for the zig-zag. I’ll have to consult Rees's book.

It was really sort of a blissful moment. Nothing on my mind except the tip of that pencil. By the time I started reading, my mind was clear, for lack of a better word. And oh, did I need that clarity — the book I was starting turned out to be way over my head, one of those that requires some pondering.

I know what y’all are thinking: "Wow! Dave's life is boring!" No, it's not. In fact, my life is the opposite of boring. I’m rarely bored. Yes, my life is uncomplicated and unsophisticated, except that it's incredibly complicated and sophisticated. There's just too much to see, too much to do, too much to experience. The opposite of "boring" is not "interesting"; the opposite of "boring" is "joyous."

And that's it. My life is joyous. I take joy in rather uncomplicated and unsophisticated things. Like pencils. In fact, I’m downright picky about pencils — really, about any tool that has to do with writing. I’ll save pens and paper for another day, but the only pencil that really satisfies me these days is the Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 (HB). A great pencil, when writing experience is balanced against price. I’ll use another pencil, but not voluntarily.

Now, I’ve heard that the Blackwing Palomino 602 is a superior writing pencil. I couldn't tell you because I’ve never tried one, for one simple reason. There are many testimonials to the superiority of that brand, but those pencils cost about $2.50 … each! Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils are about a quarter each. If I were ever to spend $2.50 for a single pencil, it had better be one amazing pencil. Unfortunately, I cannot find the Blackwing Palomino 602 for sale except in boxes of 12, and I simply will not spend $30 on a box of pencils.

What amuses me about the Blackwing Palomino 602 are the advertisements. Blackwing pencils are marketed as "Quality Tools for Artists, Writers & Makers," and the Palomino 602 is specifically aimed at writers and sketchers It's the same with Moleskine notebooks, which are pitched to the same demographic. I’ve had a few of those, but they’re really expensive now — well, "expensive" for my budget — so I don't buy them anymore.

Expensive "writing tools" don't make anyone a better writer. The same head, heart, soul is working. It really doesn't matter what tool is being used, as long as it's a quality tool. Honestly, I will pay more for better pencils, pens , and paper — because the products themselves provide a better writing experience — but I’m simply not going to pay for the name of a brand.

Every artisan I’ve ever known has told me to buy "the best tools you can afford."That's solid advice. And "tools" covers a lot of territory, even work boots. The better the boot, the longer they last. The issue with pencils and pens and paper, though, is that they don't last. It's tough — but not impossible — to wear out a hammer, but pencils are used up as they’re used.

What do I know? I am the guy whose life is so boring that I was filled with an incredible joy at one point yesterday because I found a Milky Way candy bar in the pocket of my jacket. I bought it the last time I wore that jacket — about three weeks ago — and put it in my pocket "for later." It's "later" now, and I’m sure that will be one great candy bar.

David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted [email protected]. The opinions reflected are his own.

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