Ode to the pencil

A fine book tells the little-known story of a small, light and timeless object that has always been close at hand, discretely sitting on our tables and between our fingers: the pencil.

Caroline Weaver, The Pencil Perfect, The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon, Gestalten, Berlin 2017
Caroline Weaver, The Pencil Perfect, The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon , Gestalten, Berlin 2017.


If I write Caran d’Ache, Faber-Castell, Koh-i-Noor, Staedtler or Conté crayons, I’m sure something will surface from the depths of the memory, even though pencils have been forgotten for years. Their neglect seeped in when people decided to write and do arithmetic with other more cumbersome and complex instruments, even giving up written signatures for the electronic variety. Caroline Weaver’s book dedicated to the pencil thus serves our purpose, as it helps to assemble memories, tentative strokes, broken leads and sheets of paper with pencilled drawings, doodled when we were kids and then archived in family albums like small gifts of life, regardless of whether or not we showed any artistic talent. This book might even make us take a fond look at that pencil stub lying at the back of the drawer, which for some reason we’ve never had the courage to discard.


The general enthusiastic recovery of forgotten implements and analogical techniques (freehand drawing, stamps, gravers, printing presses, silk-screen printing or compositions with moveable type) is perhaps a slightly snobbish effect of the rejection of standardised computer-based work. But within this impassioned comeback, the pencil’s revival has a place of its own. Its history, Weaver tells us, is unique and full of surprises. It brings together age-old traditions, the discovery of an exquisite graphite deposit in Great Britain in the 16th century, materials such as clay and wood (red maple and poplar), and production techniques that have transitioned over time from handcrafts to industry and design. But there are other details of no lesser importance: the hardness of the leads (from F to H to B, remember?), pencil-sharpeners of all shapes and sizes, and of course rubbers (which replaced breadcrumbs for erasing mistakes).

Caroline Weaver, The Pencil Perfect, The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon, Gestalten, Berlin 2017
Caroline Weaver, The Pencil Perfect, The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon , Gestalten, Berlin 2017. Walt Disney
It’s also a story that features great commercial battles between the old and new worlds, Universal Exhibitions, company relocations to the US, big business, and even Japan’s production excellence with the Mitsubishi 9800 pencil. There are the pencil’s inventors and innovators, whose names still appear along the sides of these writing implements. Weaver’s account also includes the great talents famed for their use of pencils, such as Walt Disney or Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his novels with a Faber Blackwing pencil. Although following a historical thread, Weaver also offers some digressions. She tells of perfumed pencils, how pencils are made, and about their hexagonal, triangular or round shapes. Ephemeral, tactile and physical, pencils connect man and brain in a way that today’s mouse and monitor cannot, concludes Weaver. While the pencil lives on in art, what is its future in daily life? Will it stay in the purchase orders of schools? Will it become an icon of the past? The author doesn’t offer any answers, and she undoubtedly wrote her book with the indispensable aid of a computer. Yet I’m sure she took notes and proof-read her drafts accompanied by her unfailing companion: a simple pencil.
The author Caroline Weaver lives in New York and runs a pencil shop in the East Village: CW Pencil Enterprise, where one can find just about every kind of pencil in the world. All the book’s illustrations are in black and white, from the cover to the pencil stubs on the flyleaves, to the still lifes, old graphics, portraits and landscapes. They are all by Oriana Fenwick, who drew them strictly with pencil with a hyperrealist quality and brilliance.
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