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A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution
Dennis Baron
A Better Pencil puts our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before.

The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.
Review:

A Better Pencil begins by revisiting the historical shift from the Platonic treatment of writing 'as a malevolent distortion of speech or, at best, a novelty' to a more contemporary position whereby 'writing is often considered more valid, more authoritative, more authentic than the spoken word'. It goes on to examine a range of anxieties associated with new communications technologies. Baron ably reveals how all writing implements - even writing itself (which, as Derrida has perhaps best shown must be understood as a 'technology') - have been greeted with anxiety and hostility.

It is interesting to note that both 'pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine'.

A series of chapters look at pre-computer writing systems, including pencils, handwritings and clay-tablets. None of these things are now commonly referred to as technologies, yet their re-examination reveals a great deal about our relationship with a range of writing processes and effects. Baron describes a classroom exercise, in which he get students to write on clay-tablets, to demonstrate very palpably: (1) how writing forces us to deal with the technology - be it clay or computer - at the same time as we attempt to get writing done (with the clay for example, it soon becomes apparent just how hard it is to achieve high quality comprehension and consistency of letter formation); (2) how technology affects the content of writing as well as the process and vice versa; and (3) how the technology affects the way we read a 'document'.

A Better Pencil goes on to examine the explosion of 'new genres' of writing that stem from the ubiquity of computing, including email, instant messaging, web page authoring, blogging, social-networking and collaborative texts such as Wikipedia, the Urban Dictionary and, interestingly, also YouTube. Essentially, then, the book provides a fascinating history of 'our tangled dealings with a wide range of writing instruments, from ancient papyrus to the modern laptop'. All of which is directed towards a thesis that computing is really only a natural extension of writing, which like all technologies brings to bear its own specific constraints and opportunities. Of course today, 'our attitude toward computers and the internet has moved from suspicion or curiosity to dependency', making this a very timely and thought-provoking book.

Whilst reading this book I was also in the middle of marking piles and piles of student essays. But not all of these 'piles' were physical ones. Almost slipping my mind was a huge virtual pile of essays neatly downloaded onto my computer awaiting my eyes. There was something about their not taking up physical space in my office that made these the hardest essays to get on and mark. I also find e-marking takes much longer, as I find myself engaging with the writing at a sentence by sentence level. Not a bad thing for each individual student. But it causes great eye-strain! As a distraction, I found myself trawling the internet for digital devices to allow me to read and write in ways akin to the traditional manner. For sure the e-book readers, with their e-ink, are starting to become a reality, but interesting handwriting tools and handwriting recognition seems still primitive in comparison to the simple technology of pen and paper. Baron is right to highlight the running trend of writing as a technology, but it can still be said handwriting has far more potential to be elegant. The computer is not necessarily a writing machine, as is suggested, more a means of production, which includes the written form.

Sunil Manghani


Additional Information:
Cost:
£13.99
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Issue Number:
ISBN 978-0-19-538844-2
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