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Review of  A Better Pencil

Reviewer: Alice Horning
Book Title: A Better Pencil
Book Author: Dennis Baron
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Issue Number: 24.1932

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

Preface. This opening section provides a brief overview of the book’s chapters. Baron points out pros and cons of the increasing use of technology for writing, noting that some scholars think the computer is the best thing to ever happen and others taking the opposite view. Issues of cost and access are important to everyone; these figure into both positive and negative responses to the new technology. One of his main points is that probably neither position is quite right; computers are just the latest in a long line of technological improvements in writing and changes to reading as a by-product of them.

Chapter 1: Writing It Down. While Socrates thought writing was a bad idea because it would keep people from using their memories, nowadays most people find 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 come to be highly valued, even though critics find it impersonal. Writing certainly had an impersonal start, since it began as an accounting tool, not a record of human thought or speech (drawn from Schmandt-Besserat). Over time, as writing has become increasingly digital, it has become subject to more questions about authority and accuracy. The many forms of digital writing raise questions about the relationship between speech and writing, and where to draw the line between what is public and what is private, a key theme of the whole book.

Chapter 2: TeknoFear. In this chapter, Baron focuses on those who hate and fear computers as a by-product of their impact on people and society. He examines the views of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, along with those of Kirkpatrick Sale and John Zerzan, both anti-computer writers, and Neal Ludd, whose name has become a general descriptor for those who resist technology in all its forms. The computer is a contemporary agent of change, much as the printing press was in its own time, as Baron notes, citing the work of the historian Eisenstein. It is ironic that Kaczynski’s insanity was brought to an end when he sent his anti-technology rant to the New York Times and it was published using some of the very technology he opposed. Digital writing has not yet given rise to what Baron calls “Frankentext” (p. 31).

Chapter 3: Thoreau’s Pencil. One of the more interesting chapters of the book, “Thoreau’s Pencil” presents a history of the pencil and argues for its virtues. Henry David Thoreau is well known for “Walden” but less so as the son of the first pencil manufacturer in the US. Relying on the definitive history of the pencil by Petroski, Baron shows how this technology has developed and improved over time, partly a by-product of Thoreau’s improvements to its design and manufacture. Graphite in pencils quickly became popular both in woodworking for which pencils were first used, and in writing, at least in part because graphite marks could be erased easily. While Thoreau disapproved of the telegraph, he would, Baron speculates, approve of computers and while he would have insisted on assembling one himself from recycled parts, he would understand 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 is celebrated by writing instrument makers on January 23, National Handwriting Day. Considering both positives and negatives, Baron points out that computers are faster and neater than handwriting, but require some technical expertise 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. Quality penmanship 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 of writing, 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 or questions to answer, using the clay as a writing surface. When they work with this “unfamiliar technology” (p. 72), students gain insight into the role and impact of technology on writing and reading. The use of the stylus, the inability to erase, and the difficulty of making changes to a text are also key issues. The aesthetics of the text, now called document design, is yet another factor, as are the color and size of the writing space. The illustrations in this chapter, of old typewriters, computers and such, are particularly interesting, as is the idea of trying out one of the oldest media for writing.

Chapter 6: When Wordstar Was King. Here, Baron reviews the history of word processing, picking up on the previous chapter’s discussion of writing on clay and moving toward the contemporary dominant use of Microsoft Word for writing. After tracing a brief history of computers and pointing out that they were not intended, originally, for word processing at all, but for numerical calculations of all kinds, Baron describes his own first attempts to use a mainframe computer for writing ordinary text, detailing the delays and difficulties 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 image on 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 a mouse and leading to many new genres.

Chapter 7: Trusting the Text. This chapter explores the complex problems of text reliability and trustworthiness. The memos about George Bush’s service in the National Guard provide a case study of an unresolved textual trust problem. Drawing on the work of historian Michael Clanchy (1993), Baron points out that in Anglo-Saxon times, a face-to-face verbal agreement was the only 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 interesting illustrations. Now, of course, signatures are the main way that a document’s authenticity is established, especially when witnessed and verified such as by a notary. Printed texts were originally viewed with considerable skepticism, but now publication is usually seen as evidence of trustworthiness. New technology now is moving toward the use of fingerprinting and other high tech ways of verifying documents.

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

Chapter 9: Everyone’s an Author. Every forward step of technology has opened up 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 of literacy makes governments nervous, whether democratic or not, as literacy opens the door to a wide array of ideas and points of view, now chiefly in the form of blogs. Baron himself has a blog called “Web of Language” and writes regularly about language policy matters ( The spread of blogs has given rise to calls for their regulation, particularly as an educational activity or when they lead to cyberbullying. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading edge organization that supports digital activities, has proposed some cautionary guidelines for bloggers and others posting to the Internet. Various legal, personal and professional problems can arise from ill-advised public writing on blogs. Baron reproduces IBM’s recommendations for appropriate behavior with digital communication. He ends 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) such as those on Facebook.

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

Chapter 11: The Dark Side of the Web. In this chapter, some of the negative features of digital reading and writing are explored to reveal the ways in which the Web allows writers to perpetrate hate and exploitation. Monitoring by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League shows the growth in hate sites, as well as the general expansion of bigotry, among other problems. Moreover, the Web can be and is controlled by governments that wish to limit their people’s exposure to differing points of view. The Chinese government serves as the prime example of Internet censorship, controlling both behavior and access. The dark side of the Web also includes pornography, insurrection, and misinformation. Many governments are beginning to work toward control of some negative behavior online. Finally, there is the problem of too much information, or perhaps more fairly stated, the lack of organization and strategic management of information on the Internet. This point leads Baron to discuss libraries and their methods of organization, such as cataloging; such strategies are almost entirely absent on the Web, though search mechanisms are improving.

Chapter 12: From Pencils to Pixels. The Google book scanning project is the launch point for this chapter having contributed to a broad change in both reading and writing. Books are increasingly digitized for reading electronically. While Baron notes the growth of recreational reading on the screen, here again his book is somewhat out of date, as the growth of e-readers and other ways to access texts on screens (like smartphones) has expanded and improved dramatically in the years since he wrote about such developments. Other changes include increased tracking of people’s activity online, whether by Google or another search engine, or even by Amazon’s shopping site, leading to suggestions for additional purchases. Tracking also reveals individual location, leading to ads for nearby shops or services that might be of interest. Big Brother is indeed watching you, and advertising to you, and hoping to sell to you. Privacy is an increasing concern. From a different perspective, environmentalists are raising the question of the power requirements of maintaining servers to feed our computer behavior. Those high-security servers raise a different set of problems about the line between public and private information. The adoration of computers by some but not all educators, like their earlier taste for typewriters, is not supported by data showing increased learning. So, finally, it is essential to keep in mind that the changes to reading and writing arising from the development of digital texts are just the “next stage” (p. 246) in the ongoing growth of communication; it is certainly not the last stage and its future remains to be seen.

Baron has some good points to make about the ways that literacy has changed as we have moved into the digital era. Given his observations about widespread illiteracy in the world, and the generational differences in the use of space pages, he might have made a stronger case for ways to use digital reading and writing to enhance critical literacy among American students and in the country at large, a goal for which I have argued in my own work (Horning 2012). His discussion of important changes in our views of the nature of public and private information in light of digital writing provides a thoughtful analysis of this developing topic. In addition, his consideration of the matter of verification or authenticity of information presented in digital texts is a point that scholars and teachers must deal with as they do their own research and review the work of both colleagues and students.

There are some other concerns: the headings within chapters are often cutesy and there are examples of questionable editing, capitalization, punctuation and similar issues. More importantly, the book seems like a bit of a conglomeration 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, or the point only becomes clear halfway through or at the very end of the chapter.

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

Clanchy, Michael. 1993. From memory to written record: England 1066-1307. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horning, Alice S. 2012. Reading, writing, and digitizing: Understanding literacy in the electronic age. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars 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.
Alice Horning is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University, where she holds a joint appointment in Linguistics. Her research over her entire career has focused on the intersection of reading and writing, focusing lately on the increasing evidence of students’ reading difficulties and how to address them in writing courses and across the disciplines. Her work has appeared in the major professional journals and in books published by Parlor Press and Hampton Press. Her most recent book is Reading, Writing, and Digitizing: Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age published in 2012 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199914005
Pages: 280
Prices: U.S. $ 17.95