Tuesday, July 20, 2004


A brand new book, cover unbent, pages smooth and clean and so perfectly flat that they stick to one another simply because there is no space between them for the air to get in and separate them.  I had a friend once who was aghast that I could take such a piece of pristine loveliness and defile it by taking a pencil in hand as I read and writing in it!
Such sacrilege!!  Sheer vandalism!!
Many of the books that have meant most to me are covered in hieroglyphics; mostly marks to return me to places of interest.  One vertical line in the margin adds a border to words that make me think “Hmmm… that was particularly interesting”, two parallel lines for “Hey, this guy/gal is REALLY on to something here”; three for “OH WOW!!  THIS COULD CHANGE MY LIFE!!!”  I wonder if I’ll ever find a need for four lines…?
I’m not a complete vandal though.  I only ever use a pencil for this kind of mark-up.  Somehow, using a pen, making it permanent, would seem just a little like desecration.  There are limits after all…
My favourites are the disposable mechanical variety, yellow body and a tip shaped like a sharpened real pencil, and spirally springy thingy inside that feeds the lead.  Coolest of all are the translucent fluorescent coloured ones, like these.  They’re probably not very eco-friendly though.  Maybe I should find a refillable one with the same feel to it.  But I always find the leads break too easily on those when I’m writing fast.
Does it say anything about me, that I like to use pencil rather than a pen? 
When I was a little kid, pens – proper pens, fountain pens - were something used only by grown-ups and big kids (who seemed nearly grown up to us little kids anyway).  I only knew three types of writing implement – pencils, biros, and fountain pens.  Sure, there were felt-tips, but they were for drawing and colouring - the tip was too fat for anything else.  As for rollerballs, fineliners and gel ink – even if they’d been invented back then, they were still far too esoteric for a schoolkid.  We were never allowed biros at school; not for Writing anyway.  The rationale, I think, at a time when writing still really meant writing, not key-tapping, was that proficiency in the use of a Proper Pen was core to a Good Education.  So it was pencils or fountain pens.
The transition from pencil to fountain pen was like a coming of age, a rite of passage accompanied by inky fingers, smudged pages, and odd little splotches of ink here and there, as hands that had been used to darting freely without constraint, learned to adapt to the dynamic characteristics of an instrument designed to dispense a controlled flow of liquid.  Shake it and it blots.  Or maybe it was hands just discovering and taking advantage of said dynamic characteristics, causing spots of ink to appear in a neat line up the shirt front and across the face of a ‘friend’.  Happy days… 
Having a first fountain pen bought was a developmental stage like stopping wearing nappies/diapers (hec, should I be writing in English or American?), or learning to ride a two-wheeler, or wearing Long Trousers/Pants.  For a while thereafter, pencils became associated with being a little kid; and so we big kids didn’t use ’em.  Not for Writing.  Hey, we were grown up now.  After all, who’d be seen riding a tricycle?. 
So perhaps my like of pencils represents a wish to return to the lost innocence of childhood?
Or maybe it’s the impermanence of the graphite line which appeals?  Maybe I hesitate to commit my thoughts to a medium that might last for a thousand years?  Maybe it’s easier to pretend the grey, erasable words aren’t really mine after all?
Nah, just kidding.  I’m an engineer, right?  It’s nothing psychological, the reason is purely mechanical – I can write fastest (whilst remaining just on the right side of illegibility) with a pencil; specifically one of these pencils.  There’s just the right degree of smooth resistance offered to the motion of the tip of the lead across the page; anything smoother flowing, and in my haste and impatience the letters become smoothed out to the extent that the writing becomes just a squiggly line that even I can’t decipher.  But I’d soon abandon anything more resistant to motion as I’d get frustrated at not being able to get the words down fast enough. 
How about you?  Are you a defacer too? 

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