My son Michael is a pencil nerd.
He listens to a podcast about pencils. He has friends that discuss the merits of Swiss made pencils over pencil made in Japan. They think about the best way to sharpen pencils. They think about the paper pencils write on. These are serious matters, about which serious conversations ensue. As it turns out there are several podcasts about pencils, although one of them is actually about professional wrestling. And there are websites that review pencils., with clever names like The Finer Point and the Well Appointed Desk.
There is even a famous 1958 essay on economics, I, Pencil, narrated by a pencil, an Eberhard-Faber Mongol 482 that claims no one person knows how to make a pencil. The author, a Michigan businessman named Leonard Read, was an early proponent of libertarianism. And later Milton Friedman picked up on the essay: The “miracle” that allows for the pencil to be made, he said, is the price mechanism that lets buyers meet sellers, and which makes free markets flow freely. (Maybe a pencil should run for president.)
Given Michael’s new found obsession with graphite, it was no surprise when he gave everyone in the family pencils for Christmas. Actually, it was a surprise. Mine was a box of classic Blackwings, reproductions of pencils used in the 1950s and 60s—the Pearl, the Palomino and the 602 (“half the pressure, twice the speed”.)
Frankly I think he and his friends are on to something. I wouldn’t say I have necessarily rediscovered the joy of handwriting—my penmanship is terrible and my grade school number 2’s were nothing like this. But it is a pleasant experience, experimenting with the different feel of different leads. There is elegance here, a touchpoint in a torrent of Tweets and texts.
I like it, and asked Katie for a pencil case and a rather expensive German sharpener for my birthday. Now I’m carrying around a special notebook, leaving my iPad at home for the simplicity and sensation of writing on paper. I’m even sketching and doodling again, which actually is a rediscovered joy. Each Sunday I sketch something from the sermon. No pocket protector yet, but I’m getting there.
As it turns out, there is evidence handwriting is good. For example, even though students type more these days, researchers have found that student who take notes by hand learn better and remember more. While those who type on their laptops take more notes and have better short-term recall, after 24 hours those who took notes my hand remembered more and understood better. (This research was reviewed April 6 in the Wall Street Journal.) There is even evidence that doodling can help you focus and remember.
Anne Trubek, who studies the history of handwriting, argues that time spent teaching handwriting in elementary school is time poorly spent. “Handwriting is going away,” she says. And the declining sale of pencils and pens over the last five years supports her point.
But we all know that, in the end, the nerds win. So maybe she is wrong.
What do you think?