Dennis Baron's A Better Pencil
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Kate Pantelides

University of South Florida

Review Discussion

Baron begins his argument with a familiar scene from Plato’s Phaedrus when Socrates warns Phaedrus that writing causes all sorts of evils, ranging from forgetfulness to deceit. Baron uses this discussion to situate the text and to assert that writing itself is a technology, and negative reactions to word technologies are nothing new – in fact, they are ancient. The reactions that Baron examines range from skepticism, as exhibited by Plato, to violence, perhaps most clearly represented in the narrative of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Kaczynski’s mission to stamp out new technologies in his “teknofear campaign” shows an exaggerated, brutal reaction to technology, but Baron suggests that the fact of Kaczynski’s fear represents common beliefs of technology (p. 21). Baron cites a number of what he terms neo-Luddites, most of whom are – unlike Kaczynski – peaceful and pragmatic, but fearful of the effects of word technologies. Although the term may give some readers pause, Baron dismisses such reactions, attempting to use “neo-Luddites” playfully. He traces the term Luddite back to its origin, describing how it eventually “came to signal stubborn resistance to inexorable progress” (p. 26). This definition underscores Baron’s primary thesis that technology is inevitable, and negative reactions are nothing new; instead, they follow a very clearly marked path and draw on the same rhetorical constructions. And his dismissal of potential sensitivities to evolving technology is also indicative of Baron's general approach.

Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that Baron offers is his treatment of Thoreau. For many, Thoreau has come to represent the anti-technology ideal, a hermit in the forest, writing in his journal alone: a vision rendered nearly impossible by blackberrys, smart phones, laptops, etc. However, Baron tells another story about Thoreau; he explains how the hermetic genius literally created “a better pencil” (p.35). In addition to his time in the woods, Thoreau was heir to a pencil fortune and spent years working for his father, attempting to improve pencil technology. Apparently, the Thoreaus cornered the American pencil market, a market previously monopolized by European companies. Baron argues that despite Thoreau’s reluctance to embrace certain technologies such as the telegraph, in contributing to the pencil industry, Thoreau helped design the first laptop. Though this claim may seem like a stretch, Baron unpacks it, explaining that Thoreau's pencil allowed people to write on the go, without having to lug around messy pen, ink, and feathers.

Following the word technology chronology, Baron next moves to the advent of the typewriter, examining the subsequent reaction to the invention: a sudden adulation of handwriting. Baron quickly points out the apparent contradiction in complaints that typing takes away personality from handwriting, reminding readers that distinctive handwriting was rarely a goal of education; instead most were taught “a uniform script…that would prepare students for the world of work” (p.55). To underscore the difficulty of working with early writing technologies and further problematize nostalgia, Baron describes a workshop that he conducts with his students in which they answer a series of questions on clay tablets. In this workshop and in his discussion about handwriting, Baron confronts the frequent complaint that new technologies make writing too easy and too fast. Of course, technologies eventually make things faster, but they do not start that way. Like clay tablets, "new writing technologies always start by slowing writers down” (p.104). Thus, Baron offers a two-fold answer to anyone who misses the pre-texting days: new technologies always have kinks to work out, but previous technologies, such as the clay tablet, often interfered with communication and had significant “technical” difficulties.