Getting to the point with pencils

We don’t have hard data on this, but even in the Digital Age, the humble graphite pencil continues to make its mark.

Joanne Ciccarello
Dale King (with pencil) and Chris Bell discuss the placement of the support beams for the house with new owners Martin Sheridan and Alexandra Marks.

This week the focus here is not language per se but a class of tools of keen interest to many who toil in the language field: pencils.

Mary Norris, in “Between You & Me,” her charming usage guide-cum-memoir of her career at The New Yorker, devotes an entire chapter to her relationship with pencils. Her passion is the No. 1, with a softer “lead” (really graphite and clay) than the ubiquitous No. 2.

She was introduced to the No. 1 through a subtle professional subterfuge. Penciled notations on paper were essential to getting the magazine from the writers’ and editors’ minds to the readers’ hands. One colleague, though, had handwriting (quaint concept, no?) that was neat and precise but faint. His markings often disappeared from proofs faxed (another quaint concept) to the printer. 

But Joe in makeup figured that Mr. Faintmark, if given No. 1s, would leave his mark more legibly without even trying. This introduction to the No. 1 changed Ms. Norris’s professional life forever. When the magazine’s office-supply store dropped No. 1s from its catalog, she sought out her own source.

Norris’s book came out a month after a new specialty pencil shop opened in New York City, in a neighborhood we might call “not your grandmother’s Lower East Side.” “Pens are king, but pencils are rising among desk-bound urbanites,” a Bloomberg BusinessWeek headline on its article about the shop proclaimed, on the basis of no actual data discernible in the piece.

Maybe this is a zeitgeist thing that doesn’t need data. In May, an exhibition called “The Secret Life of the Pencil” opened for a brief run in London. Its aim was “to reaffirm the classic #2’s status as a powerful emblem of creativity, innovation and critical thinking in the 21st century,” according to one report.

The pencil “trend” has prompted me to explore something I’ve long wondered about: the connection between Caran d’Ache, the Swiss pencilmaker, and karandash, the Russian word for pencil. 

The company, I find, is named for Caran d’Ache, pseudonym for Emmanuel Poiré, a cartoonist born in Russia of French heritage. He eventually settled in France, where, the Charlie Hebdo of his day, he skewered the establishment for its anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus Affair. He indeed took his pen (pencil?) name from karandash – derived from the Turkish words for “black stone”– a reference to graphite.

Ah, graphite! Centuries before our smartphones let us tap, tap, tap our little notes-to-self, the humble graphite pencil emerged as a significant thinking tool for people with more ideas than they could comfortably hold in their heads. Pencils let them jot down, quick and dirty, concepts not fully formed enough to commit to vellum and oak gall ink. 

In the Digital Age, silvery-gray graphite, pink rubber, and fragrant cypress wood help anchor our ideas to their concrete expressions. It is the nature of graphite to leave a mark. And that is exactly the point.

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