The Humble Pencil
I have always been drawn to pencils. They are always on my table and I prefer to write with them to writing with pens. I love the smell of the wood and the sight of the freshly sharpened lead tips pointing up out of the many mugs I keep them in. There’s something about a pencil that makes me feel grounded when I use it. You can imagine now why I was so pleasantly surprised when I came across ‘Pencils- A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil’ – a slender little hard-bound book yesterday.
The serendipity of teaching a 6-week online class on Identity and Belonging and reading that
the ‘identity of a pencil has much to do with where and when it came from’ made me chuckle. With the advances in word processing technology, the pencil has become more of
an accessory than a daily necessity. Flipping through the pages made me nostalgic. I had not
acknowledged the various types that had passed through my hands over the years till now.
Made in Germany, Made in India, Made in England they say: plain wooden pencils, painted
ones in distinct colours- yellow, blue, red and black stripes, yellow and black stripes and the
‘HB’ pencils. I see familiar brand names stamped on them- Nataraj, Staedtler and Faber, the
letters printed in black, silver and gold. I continue to read about novelty pencils with marble
prints, pencils with eraser tips and the bi-coloured ones in red and blue. I don’t see the girly
ones I had, the ones with pink feathers and purple pompoms at the tip, but I can feel them
against my cheeks as I visualize them. Each pencil takes me back in time to various moments, particularly the memories of school reopening after the holidays. Memories of using a blade to carefully slice away paint from the top of the pencil, to write our name on it. The joy of mindlessly chewing on the tips and leaving bite marks and the warning of potential lead poisoning as a result of that. I recall the visits to stationery shops with my parents and the variety of pencil sharpeners and erasers. They were and still are for me affordable little treats. I allow more memories of people and places to flood my mind and I feel a tingle down my spine.
I am excited to read that I am not the only one to go gaga over this writing implement. Bob
Truby has collected thousands of pencils and has become a documentarian of the evolution
of the pencil. The basic components of a pencil I learn as I read, are graphite, water and clay
(for the core), all glued tightly into a wooden casing. The pencil has been around for over four centuries beginning with the discovery of graphite in 1560s in England, but it was only
in the mid-1600s, a century later, that graphite was encased in wood. The author opines that it is now, in the 21st century, the humble pencil is more a symbol of the analogue lifestyle and an icon of creativity.
As I close the book, I have a greater appreciation for the pencil and its craftsmanship. As an
artist, I have an assortment of colour pencils, but I see a bundle of beige pencils I received as
a gift last year, marked with the names of herbs. If I plant them, they will grow into plants
and I wonder why I have not done that. I notice the pencils in my cosmetic bag; make up in
a convenient pencil form for my eyes and lips. With the skill and talent of designers and
visionaries, I am curious to know what more the pencil can become. Meanwhile, join me in
celebrating it and consider what the pencil means to you.