Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Democracy of a Pencil

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On weekends I have more time to read. Good thing because I began a doorstopper of a biography about Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls. It might be more Thoreau than I bargained for.

There has always been something compelling about Walden and “On Civil Disobedience” that reminds me of my 20s. It was a good time to drop out or become a rebel. I’ve come back to Walden again and again and each time I feel anxious—there’s got to be more to this story. But, there isn’t. He lived by himself for a few years “off the grid” and then that was it. I guess I wanted it to be about something other than simplicity.

Anyway, the opening chapters of the biography explains that Thoreau’s parents, though modestly middleclass, made their money from—wait!: pencils.

I know, random. In today’s economy I cannot imagine someone making a fortune from the humble pencil. But that’s the beauty of it! It isn’t humble—the manufacturing of pencils revolutionized the worker, the intellectual, the thinker. It out the revolution into the Industrial Revolution. In today’s terms, it was like going from analog to digital.

The area was ripe for pencil manufacturing because 1) unlimited sources of timber, 2) deposits of graphite to be mined. Up until the 1800s the quality of pencils was spotty. Mostly the graphite was soft and indelible. The lead was always breaking. Some of the best pencils were imported, mostly from France and England. The process was slow and went through many phases . . . then [from Wiki: philosopher Henry David Thoreau discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite using clay as the binder; this invention was prompted by his father's pencil factory in Concord, which employed graphite found in New Hampshire.]

Just imagine: as a writer you were deskbound. You needed a quill pen and good India ink. The costs were often exorbitant as well as the paper. Even though there were pulp mills everywhere, paper was scarce; no one wasted it. A pencil freed the writer to get up and walk around. Take a notebook. It allowed the laborer to go out into the field, just as Thoreau the surveyor did, and scribble numbers. The costs were relatively cheap. Soon most people had pencils in order to record their thoughts, stories. In order to write essays—such as “On Civil Disobedience”—the predecessor of the blog.


Today the pencil is much overlooked, easily dismissed as we tap and text with our devices. Truly it is humble. We don’t give it a second-thought. Sometimes I feel like the lowly pencil—yet if I stop for a moment, I remember I have a lot to contribute. That not all things are as they first appear. 
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certainly not a "looker"

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