The World's Best Website About Pencils

Pencil Revolution is a lesson in the wonders of the small, simple objects around us, if you just look closely enough.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

It started eight years ago without any fanfare, just a simple little blog post appropriately titled "First post." 

And that seems appropriate for a blog that is singularly, obsessively concerned with all things pencils, a technology for which any great fanfare would be, well, ridiculous.

Since then, Pencil Revolution, has chronicled every aspect of pencilnalia, including pencil reviews, sharpener reviews, historical pencil anecdotes, et cetera. Here, for example, are 10 representative posts:

1. Pencil-related passages found while reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden

2. Vintage pencil advertisements

3. Pictures of pencil-shaped buildings around the world

4. Observations on the combination of pencils and camping (Pencil shavings apparently make good kindling.)

5. A review of the Staedtler Norica HB pencil

I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I’d find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is…a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can’t just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I’ve given most of them away already.

6. A review of the Dux Inkwell sharpener

The true test of any pencil sharpener, of course, is how well it works and I am pleased to say that this is an excellent sharpener. It sharpens smoothly into long curls and sharpens to a good point — though, in a perfect world, I wish it would sharpen to a slightly longer point. The inkwell holds plenty of shavings and since the container is translucent, its easy to tell when its full.

7. A review of artisanal pencil-sharpener David Rees's bookHow to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants ("a must-read for anyone interested in pencils")

8. Information about a note-taking conference and related online exhibit featuring Thoreau's pencils

9. A confession of having stolen an Ikea pencil (and a link to a Flickr group of other such pencil thieves)

10. And what self-respecting pencil blog would neglect to cover the world's largest pencil? That, of course, is covered in these pages too.

So, the obvious question is, why pencils? What is it about pencils that merit this sort of attention, this level of devotion?

Johnny Gamber, the site's creator and leader, answered that for me over email. What draws him to pencils are "their relative simplicity."

But, at that same time, that simplicity obscures an object that, as Gamber sees it, is "amazing," if you just look closely enough. "While mostly made of wood, graphite and clay, they are wonders of engineering," he writes. "Even terrible pencils are made with astounding precision. For instance, some of my favorite pencils might contain carefully-selected components from around the world: German-made cores made of graphite from Asia, bound in a wood casing made of Incense Cedar from the American Northwest, for instance."

Gamber says that part of the joy of pencils is the "physical experience" of them: "sharpening them, wearing them down as they sort-of-scratch across a page, making a minor mess erasing their marks." And there's the smell too, with its Madeleine-level nostalgia power. "Cedar pencils smell wonderfully, and such a scent from childhood always seems to affect us strongly. I get eager for recess and a chocolate milk sometimes when I smell my pencilcase," Gamber writes.

Gamber, who lives in Baltimore, says that he started the site eight years ago "as a sort of experiment." He was curious to see what other people thought about pencils, and maybe even encourage a few people to pick up their old pencils once again. "What I immediately found is that a lot of people simply love pencils," he told me. "Perhaps, as for me, they serve as a vehicle to the past as a mood and as a period of time."

He recalls that at first the feedback he received was mixed. Someone at Metafilter posted about the site and "people thought it was a joke." But since then, according to Gamber, "it's received a lot of positive comments and press." He's been on the radio, interviewed for various new stories, and so on. "Usually," he says, "the response -- whether positive or negative -- revolves around the surprise: there's a blog about pencils? [Editor's note: Guilty as charged.] Now there are quite a few blogs about pencils, and I count myself lucky to be among such talented and devoted Comrades." 

In the end, Gamber's fascination with pencils boils down to one main thing: He just really likes them. In a post titled, "Why pencils?" he explains:

The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.

The point is that it’s best to write with what we like best, no? I’ll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That’s the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.

 
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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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