A Better Pencil: Readers, writers, and the digital revolution

by Dennis Baron (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 280pp (hbk), £13.99, ISBN 978 0 19 538844 2.

Reviewed by Sonia Cutler

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When I first offered to review Dennis Baron's book, I must admit that I did so because I was intrigued by the title and by what it promised to deliver about a subject in which I have a personal and professional interest: the digital revolution and how it has affected reading and writing. Having read the book, I can honestly say that I have very much enjoyed both its content and the prose used to convey it and can confidently say that the book more than lives up to my initial expectations and delivers plenty.

Spoken versus written word

Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, admirably explores and explains the endless battles that result from the impact that new technologies have on our lives and learning.

First, the reader is reminded that the spoken word and oral tradition predate any writing technology and that, even when writing came about, the spoken word was held in much greater regard and trust than the written word, with the latter seen as a mere aid to memory. Baron uses the example of Plato warning his contemporaries about the dangers of the written word and the impact that this may have on the masses. In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates warning his companion Phaedrus that 'writing will only make human memory weaker.'Ironically, we know of Plato's warning, Baron reminds us, 'because Plato wrote it down.' However, as soon as writing stopped being a new and uncommon practice, it became more familiar and easier to trust than the spoken word.

Another technology, the printing press, brought about a revolution that dramatically changed who could read and write, what got read and written, and created new standards and processes used in the publication of the written word. Along the way it also revolutionised literacy in both exciting and perilous ways, demonstrating that technologies can create new problems while solving existing ones.

Great debates

Once people started to write down their ideas, however, the first of a many great debates on the impact of new communication technologies on life, culture, and learning began. The communication technology being discussed may change over time, but the central debate remains remarkably constant with each new age.

Nowadays, a new generation of technology enthusiasts and pioneers battle against those who are sceptical (at best) or downright fearful (and I am deliberately avoiding the term 'technophobe' here) of the impact that personal computers, the World Wide Web, social networking sites and the like have on our lives, on how we read, write – and, by extension, how we edit the written word – and learn.

From pencil, printing press and typewriter to PCs and the web

From one chapter to the next, Baron takes us on an engrossing historical journey, quoting example after example of technologies which were first greeted with great suspicion but which were later adopted into everyday life and learning.

Ultimately, even critics of these technologies ended up adopting them, or, at the very least, benefited from them. The reader cannot help but raise a wry smile at the irony when Baron describes how 'Luddites on Line' ended up winning Yahoo's 'Cool Site of the Day' or at the notion of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association promoting National Handwriting Day through the internet.

Although the historical examples – from pencil, printing press, telegraph and typewriter, all the way to personal computers, web pages, blogs and social networking sites – are many, the love–hate relationship we have with technology has hardly changed over the centuries. We may initially greet new technology with distrust but, with time and with each technology becoming cheaper and easier to use (these being key points), most of us adapt to the new reality and adopt it. We may not always like technological change, or may even fear it, but ultimately we learn to live with it and incorporate it into how we work, write and learn.

Fear of the new

The web is just the latest in a long line of technologies to invoke once more the recurring pattern of technology optimism battling fear of the new. According to Baron, the latest generation of critics see computers as allowing too many people control over the creation and publication of text while 'wreaking havoc with our handwriting' along the way. However, I have to agree with Baron when he suggests that 'English survives, conversation thrives online as well as off, and on balance, digital communication seems to be enhancing human interaction, not detracting from it.'

As each of its chapters reinforces the key themes, the book also provides readers with some wonderful insights into writing technologies that we have come to take for granted. The chapter on the pencil beautifully explains the evolution of this still invaluable and also rather sophisticated tool, whose sales continue to fare well even in the digital era. It has certainly made me look at each pencil I use with a renewed sense of appreciation for the long history and craftsmanship that has gone into producing it.

Complicated relationship

Baron also reminds us that some technologies were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils were first crafted by woodworkers to mark up their boards but were quickly adopted by writers and artists. Computers were originally created to crunch numbers, not to handle words. However, as people adopt new technologies, they also repurpose them to fit in with their specific needs.

I highly recommend this book. It is well written, using engaging and entertaining prose, is full of really interesting information and examples and is, above all, highly relevant to present-day readers, writers, and editors. As a history of our complicated relationship with a range of writing instruments, from the pencil to the computer, it is highly educational and fun to read.

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