Ode to a dull pencil

In yesterday’s post I discussed the adage that is the title of this blog. One of my late father’s favorite adages was, “the dullest pencil is keener than the sharpest mind.” he meant that I had better write down my ideas before I forget them. I have just been thinking how much more powerful his aphorism would have been if the dullest pencil was also the best and the beautiful. In his youth America was still in search of a good five-cent cigar, but could wars have been averted with a superior penny pencil?image There are the whole foods and tiny house movements. Perhaps there should be a Dull Pencil movement! Before you think I am suffering from lead poisoning from chewing too many Ticonderoga #2 barrels, allow me to elaborate.

Those closest to me know how I love writing instruments, particularly fountain pens. I write daily as a devotional exercise and there is nothing like drinking pour-over-brewed coffee from a steaming cup in the soft light of the early morning with a robust fountain pen seemingly guiding my hand as it smoothly sails over Clairefontaine paper. The Brilliant-Braun Pelikan ink transforms my thoughts into flowing rivers that I would love to describe as beautiful in themselves were it not that my scrawl hardly matches the functionality of my tools. Sadly, Plato’s ideals include perfect calligraphy. I have three cherished fountain pens (so far) that I will pass down to my children when I die. But if fountain pens were wine and I were a connoisseur of both wine and beer, then my 1.3 mm Pentel Fiesta mechanical pencil would be my favorite brew.

Consider the lithe Fiesta with its thick, unbreakable lead that graces Rhodias and Big Chief tablets alike with a fragile char that can be completely erased. Its tracks are uniformly, and wonderfully, dull. Yes, dull! It is useful both for writing and sketching for hours without fear of the lead snapping, falling out, or creating ugly chicken scratches. It has been admired as I keep track of Hand-and-Foot progress, has become the perfect Via Media to solve the pen versus pencil dilemma of keeping score at a baseball game, and has calmed my perfectionistic anxiety when I have to keep everyday notes in a Moleskine notebook. Its only flaw is that its PDE-1 erasers fall off the pencil end in my briefcase and, like prodigal socks in the dryer, they disappear forever to a synthetic rubber limbo.

I first encountered the Fiesta while foraging in Varney’s bookstore in Manhattan (Kansas–even more impressive!). A number of the mechanical pencils in Lifesaver candy colors were stuffed into a clear plastic cup. To say this was minimal packaging is an understatement. Only a small, difficult-to-remove product code sticker suggested that this was an item for sale. This was the only store I entered that ever carried the Fiesta in our part of the country. I have had to order it online since, and while I don’t know the inner workings of the company that makes it, I suspect that it is being discontinued.

The last time I ordered the pencil, the barrel-color selection was reduced to blue only for the 1.3 mm lead version. When I was in graduate school I was part of a writer’s cult that coveted Mon Ami ballpoint pens that were only available at a few elect K-Marts. During many an all-nighter one housemate or another would extol some aspect of the multi-faceted virtues of the Korean-made pen. Our panegyrics fell upon deaf ears when Sears took over the department store chain and the little blue-and-black plastic pens went the way of the Oviraptor Philoceratops. Let us hope the same fate does not await the Fiesta.


What does “all books are neighbors” mean?

Someone recently asked me about the title of this weblog. What does “All Books are Neighbors” mean anyway? It sounds like an adage, but as far as I can tell there is nothing like it anywhere in Erasmus’ venerable collection (At some time I hope to expand on Erasmus’ first–and perhaps my favorite–adage: “Friends have all things in common”). And while at this time a Google search of the phrase will unearth few results, it cannot be attributed to me. I was having coffee with a friend early one morning at the Black Cow when a friend uttered those four words. imageAt first I thought I had misheard because a barista let forth a piercing jet of steam at the same time, so I asked him to repeat himself. He said, “All books are neighbors.” He had never heard the saying before either, but had recently heard a speaker use it.

Since the speaker was the first person to use it as far as I knew, I suppose the context of the speech would be helpful in giving context to what I am no doubt sure by now my reader recognizes as an ambiguous phrase. The context was that the convention of language means that one can find common ground shared by any two or more books: assumptions, understandings of the audience, and meaningfulness. Marx and Smith, King and Christie, Calvin and Kerouac, in print all these very different authors are neighbors and they engage in a dialogue that only makes sense if there is commonality. The commonality is so commonplace that readers don’t give a fig about their common assumptions and move their attention to the margins of dissonance. Now when I heard this I had to think through whether this was true or not, but I decided I didn’t give a fig either. Nor was I convinced that this was the best original context. The adage was so elegant, but the context was, well, oddly strained. It violated Occam’s Razor and all other sharp instruments of critical analysis. So I don’t think it can mean all books are neighbors to each other.

While books are our favorite artifacts of human existence (aren’t they?), they do not literally breathe or have the capacity ot relationship. Books are personified in relationship to the real beings who create them. I prefer to understand the adage to mean that we cherish the written word both to know we are not alone and that we have access to the artifact that, as the product of human creativity, reminds, amuses, entertains, angers–in short inspires us to be human.

I have thus admitted that I adopted (stole?) this adage and invested my own meaning to it as wantonly as any petty proof texter. But let us dialogue. What do you think it means? Please comment. I promise that most future posts will contain more story than dialectic.

Assuming we accept my meaning of the adage then, I chose it for this blog to suggest that books, stories, and reading will be the focus of my writing. I am using it to inspire my ideal of wanting to be more consistent with my blog as an expression of art (kitsch?) and not as a cash cow, and to share my thoughts and receive feedback from my friends who are willing to take time to read. I hope they entertain and inspire any who take up and read. That last allusion is to St. Augustine of Hippo, so you see all books are neighbors!