LINGUIST List 24.1932

Sun May 05 2013

Review: Writing Systems: Baron (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 06-Mar-2013
From: Alice Horning <>
Subject: A Better Pencil
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Dennis BaronTITLE: A Better PencilSUBTITLE: Readers, Writers, and the Digital RevolutionPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Alice Horning, Oakland University

SUMMARYThis book consists of twelve chapters dealing with various aspects of digitalreading and writing by Dennis Baron, author of the blog “Web of Language” anda professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Preface. This opening section provides a brief overview of the book’schapters. Baron points out pros and cons of the increasing use of technologyfor writing, noting that some scholars think the computer is the best thing toever happen and others taking the opposite view. Issues of cost and accessare important to everyone; these figure into both positive and negativeresponses to the new technology. One of his main points is that probablyneither position is quite right; computers are just the latest in a long lineof technological improvements in writing and changes to reading as aby-product of them.

Chapter 1: Writing It Down. While Socrates thought writing was a bad ideabecause it would keep people from using their memories, nowadays most peoplefind writing to be at least useful if not essential, and highly trustworthy.Writing is relatively new, arising in the last 6000 years or so. It has cometo be highly valued, even though critics find it impersonal. Writingcertainly had an impersonal start, since it began as an accounting tool, not arecord of human thought or speech (drawn from Schmandt-Besserat). Over time,as writing has become increasingly digital, it has become subject to morequestions about authority and accuracy. The many forms of digital writingraise questions about the relationship between speech and writing, and whereto draw the line between what is public and what is private, a key theme ofthe whole book.

Chapter 2: TeknoFear. In this chapter, Baron focuses on those who hate andfear computers as a by-product of their impact on people and society. Heexamines the views of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, along with those ofKirkpatrick Sale and John Zerzan, both anti-computer writers, and Neal Ludd,whose name has become a general descriptor for those who resist technology inall its forms. The computer is a contemporary agent of change, much as theprinting press was in its own time, as Baron notes, citing the work of thehistorian Eisenstein. It is ironic that Kaczynski’s insanity was brought toan end when he sent his anti-technology rant to the New York Times and it waspublished using some of the very technology he opposed. Digital writing hasnot yet given rise to what Baron calls “Frankentext” (p. 31).

Chapter 3: Thoreau’s Pencil. One of the more interesting chapters of thebook, “Thoreau’s Pencil” presents a history of the pencil and argues for itsvirtues. Henry David Thoreau is well known for “Walden” but less so as the sonof the first pencil manufacturer in the US. Relying on the definitive historyof the pencil by Petroski, Baron shows how this technology has developed andimproved over time, partly a by-product of Thoreau’s improvements to itsdesign and manufacture. Graphite in pencils quickly became popular both inwoodworking for which pencils were first used, and in writing, at least inpart because graphite marks could be erased easily. While Thoreau disapprovedof the telegraph, he would, Baron speculates, approve of computers and whilehe would have insisted on assembling one himself from recycled parts, he wouldunderstand and use it as earlier writers used their pencils.

Chapter 4: National Handwriting Day. The death knell of handwriting,certainly for business purposes, was not the computer but the typewriter.Long before word processing, typewriters had replaced handwritten letters,memos and other office documents. Writing by hand is still around, and iscelebrated by writing instrument makers on January 23, National HandwritingDay. Considering both positives and negatives, Baron points out thatcomputers are faster and neater than handwriting, but require some technicalexpertise not required to use a pencil. The typewriter changed writing too,just as computers have, offering a uniform and impersonal version of writing,a goal consistent with the penmanship systems like the Palmer method. Qualitypenmanship was a school requirement and needed for office work as well. Now,handwriting is thought to be more personal, individualized and revealing.Finally, though, computers are coming around to simulating handwriting,including fonts that resemble handwriting.

Chapter 5: Writing on Clay. To explore one of the oldest technologies ofwriting, Baron assigns his students an array of writing tasks to try on clay.He gives them blocks of ordinary modeling clay and passages to copy orquestions to answer, using the clay as a writing surface. When they work withthis “unfamiliar technology” (p. 72), students gain insight into the role andimpact of technology on writing and reading. The use of the stylus, theinability to erase, and the difficulty of making changes to a text are alsokey issues. The aesthetics of the text, now called document design, is yetanother factor, as are the color and size of the writing space. Theillustrations in this chapter, of old typewriters, computers and such, areparticularly interesting, as is the idea of trying out one of the oldest mediafor writing.

Chapter 6: When Wordstar Was King. Here, Baron reviews the history of wordprocessing, picking up on the previous chapter’s discussion of writing on clayand moving toward the contemporary dominant use of Microsoft Word for writing.After tracing a brief history of computers and pointing out that they werenot intended, originally, for word processing at all, but for numericalcalculations of all kinds, Baron describes his own first attempts to use amainframe computer for writing ordinary text, detailing the delays anddifficulties of waiting for final printouts and the challenges of editing.Dedicated word processors helped, but not as much as personal computers did.The main problem was that early word processors did not provide a clear imageon the screen of what would appear on a printed page (the WYSIWYG phenomenon),made possible by the graphical user interface (GUI), allowing the use of amouse and leading to many new genres.

Chapter 7: Trusting the Text. This chapter explores the complex problems oftext reliability and trustworthiness. The memos about George Bush’s servicein the National Guard provide a case study of an unresolved textual trustproblem. Drawing on the work of historian Michael Clanchy (1993), Baronpoints out that in Anglo-Saxon times, a face-to-face verbal agreement was theonly reliable way to make a deal. Then people moved to written documents,authenticated by a cross or seal of some kind, as shown in several interestingillustrations. Now, of course, signatures are the main way that a document’sauthenticity is established, especially when witnessed and verified such as bya notary. Printed texts were originally viewed with considerable skepticism,but now publication is usually seen as evidence of trustworthiness. Newtechnology now is moving toward the use of fingerprinting and other high techways of verifying documents.

Chapter 8: Writing on Screen. The remaining and most interesting chaptersdeal with the impact of technology on writing and more generally, on life andrelationships in the contemporary era, exploring in particular the major shiftin the definitions of public and private writing as more people read and writeonline. New genres, including email, web pages, and instant messages seem atfirst to undermine proper” language, but they quickly develop their own setsof rules and conventions, known as “netiquette” (p. 142). Increasingly, theshift is toward texting, a genre that Baron refers only briefly. This bookwas published in 2009, meaning that the writing was probably completed in 2008sometime, before texting became the phenomenon that it is now. He discussestexting in the context of instant messaging as a new genre. At the end ofthis chapter, Baron reproduces CNN’s guidelines for the appropriate use of IM,email and other digital communication, reminding readers that these aredocuments that can have important personal and professional consequences.

Chapter 9: Everyone’s an Author. Every forward step of technology has openedup access to writing to more people by making it easier and cheaper to create,preserve and share texts, most recently via laptops and Wi-Fi. The spread ofliteracy makes governments nervous, whether democratic or not, as literacyopens the door to a wide array of ideas and points of view, now chiefly in theform of blogs. Baron himself has a blog called “Web of Language” and writesregularly about language policy matters ( spread of blogs has given rise to calls for their regulation, particularlyas an educational activity or when they lead to cyberbullying. Even theElectronic Frontier Foundation, a leading edge organization that supportsdigital activities, has proposed some cautionary guidelines for bloggers andothers posting to the Internet. Various legal, personal and professionalproblems can arise from ill-advised public writing on blogs. Baron reproducesIBM’s recommendations for appropriate behavior with digital communication. Heends this discussion of blogs by suggesting that they increase social contact,though in a different way than do what he calls “space pages,” (p. 181) suchas those on Facebook.

Chapter 10: A Space of One’s Own. “Pageowners” (p. 184) can post all kindsof information about themselves and their lives on their space pages onFacebook or Myspace, or provide brief updates in a very condensed form throughTwitter, and they can present videos of all kinds on YouTube. Facebook andother space pages raise the question of authenticity in a different venue thanprint, since trustworthiness is an issue with postings that can be impossibleto verify. This concern persists now. At the end, Baron takes up issues ofsafety and appropriate behavior on space pages that are major on-goingproblems. These concerns lead to a discussion of wikis, continuously editedweb pages. Here, as with other space pages, accuracy, safety, authenticityand verification are major issues. Wikis, because they are open to continuousediting, tend to get corrected more quickly than other kinds of onlinedocuments, such as the online “Encyclopedia Britannica”, but verificationremains an issue. Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary provide two majorexamples of wikis.

Chapter 11: The Dark Side of the Web. In this chapter, some of the negativefeatures of digital reading and writing are explored to reveal the ways inwhich the Web allows writers to perpetrate hate and exploitation. Monitoringby the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League shows thegrowth in hate sites, as well as the general expansion of bigotry, among otherproblems. Moreover, the Web can be and is controlled by governments that wishto limit their people’s exposure to differing points of view. The Chinesegovernment serves as the prime example of Internet censorship, controllingboth behavior and access. The dark side of the Web also includes pornography,insurrection, and misinformation. Many governments are beginning to worktoward control of some negative behavior online. Finally, there is theproblem of too much information, or perhaps more fairly stated, the lack oforganization and strategic management of information on the Internet. Thispoint leads Baron to discuss libraries and their methods of organization, suchas cataloging; such strategies are almost entirely absent on the Web, thoughsearch mechanisms are improving.

Chapter 12: From Pencils to Pixels. The Google book scanning project is thelaunch point for this chapter having contributed to a broad change in bothreading and writing. Books are increasingly digitized for readingelectronically. While Baron notes the growth of recreational reading on thescreen, here again his book is somewhat out of date, as the growth ofe-readers and other ways to access texts on screens (like smartphones) hasexpanded and improved dramatically in the years since he wrote about suchdevelopments. Other changes include increased tracking of people’s activityonline, whether by Google or another search engine, or even by Amazon’sshopping site, leading to suggestions for additional purchases. Tracking alsoreveals individual location, leading to ads for nearby shops or services thatmight be of interest. Big Brother is indeed watching you, and advertising toyou, and hoping to sell to you. Privacy is an increasing concern. From adifferent perspective, environmentalists are raising the question of the powerrequirements of maintaining servers to feed our computer behavior. Thosehigh-security servers raise a different set of problems about the line betweenpublic and private information. The adoration of computers by some but notall educators, like their earlier taste for typewriters, is not supported bydata showing increased learning. So, finally, it is essential to keep in mindthat the changes to reading and writing arising from the development ofdigital texts are just the “next stage” (p. 246) in the ongoing growth ofcommunication; it is certainly not the last stage and its future remains to beseen.

EVALUATIONBaron has some good points to make about the ways that literacy has changed aswe have moved into the digital era. Given his observations about widespreadilliteracy in the world, and the generational differences in the use of spacepages, he might have made a stronger case for ways to use digital reading andwriting to enhance critical literacy among American students and in thecountry at large, a goal for which I have argued in my own work (Horning2012). His discussion of important changes in our views of the nature ofpublic and private information in light of digital writing provides athoughtful analysis of this developing topic. In addition, his considerationof the matter of verification or authenticity of information presented indigital texts is a point that scholars and teachers must deal with as they dotheir own research and review the work of both colleagues and students.

There are some other concerns: the headings within chapters are often cutesyand there are examples of questionable editing, capitalization, punctuationand similar issues. More importantly, the book seems like a bit of aconglomeration of interesting historical topics without a clear focal point.In many chapters, it is hard to see the point the author is trying to make, orthe point only becomes clear halfway through or at the very end of thechapter.

Baron does make good use of illustrations and offers many specific recentexamples of digital writing; the historical development of pencils,typewriters and other technology provides a solid backdrop for his pointsabout the changes wrought by the move from pencils to pixels.

REFERENCESClanchy, Michael. 1993. From memory to written record: England 1066-1307.2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horning, Alice S. 2012. Reading, writing, and digitizing: Understandingliteracy in the electronic age. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: CambridgeScholars Publishing.

Petroski, Henry. 1990. The pencil: A history of design and circumstance.New York: Alfred Knopf.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1996. How writing came about. Austin:University of Texas Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAlice Horning is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University,where she holds a joint appointment in Linguistics. Her research over herentire career has focused on the intersection of reading and writing, focusinglately on the increasing evidence of students’ reading difficulties and how toaddress them in writing courses and across the disciplines. Her work hasappeared in the major professional journals and in books published by ParlorPress and Hampton Press. Her most recent book is Reading, Writing, andDigitizing: Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age published in 2012 byCambridge Scholars Publishing.

Page Updated: 05-May-2013