People who write notes in ink must be very sure of their thoughts. I write notes in pencil: It seems more polite. Penciled notes are always provisional and erasable. But the apparent humility—or, perhaps, smug performance of humility—in my choice of penciling is counterbalanced by the fact that I eschew the humble wooden pencil. I must have a mechanical pencil, the kind you click to advance the lead. And when I say “a mechanical pencil,” you should know that I mean “lots of mechanical pencils.”
Cheap, plastic mechanical pencils; expensive polycarbonate mechanical pencils; tiny, slim aluminum mechanical pencils; and finely-engineered mechanical drafting pencils: I have them all. I use them to write in my notebooks, in the margins of printed books, and on manuscript paper for musical composition. I am an incorrigible mechanical penciler. I will never have enough mechanical pencils.
A good mechanical pencil is a beautifully-made object. Architects have long sworn by the original German model of my prized Rotring 600, now manufactured in Japan: Its all-metal barrel is hexagonal, so that it doesn’t roll down the drawing-board, and it is an instrument of exquisite heft and balance. (The tactile positivity of its lead-advance button mechanism is a perpetual delight. This pencil is, quite literally, clickbait.) But a mechanical pencil is also, simply, more practical. The existence of pencil sharpeners or pencils shrunk to tiny stumps through long use are just foolish rumors of a bygone age. The ordinary, dumb wooden pencil is, in the poetic words of Henry Petroski—author of The Pencil: A History (1989)—“designed to be destroyed.” A mechanical pencil doesn’t require sharpening and is always the same length, so that its weight and handfeel remain constant. It is obviously an improvement, a superior piece of gear.