Roald Dahl would sharpen six Dixon Ticonderoga pencils every morning before he began writing. John Steinbeck preferred a Blackwing 602. If like me, you are a lover of writing process and the low-tech tools of our trade, then finding out tidbits like these is always a treat (see Mrs. Pumpernickel for my ode to writing equipment). Little wonder, then, that I was entranced to learn that someone else loves pencils, erasers, stationery and all that jazz enough to actually pen a book about it called The Perfection of the Paper Clip.
Here’s what Wall Street Journal reviewer Mark Miodownik said about James Ward’s labor of love: “Now I am a stationery lover. I have strong opinions about sticky notes, envelopes, pencils and paper. So when I picked up this book I felt rather like a sports fan about to read a history of his team. I was excited but worried, concerned most of all that a hierarchy of stationery might be presented, that the pen might be pronounced not just mightier than the sword but also mightier than the pencil. I needn’t have worried. Mr. Ward presents each item with equal reverence and care.”
What a sprightly review! And just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief history of the pencil: Its origin can be traced to 16th century England. “The story goes that, during a story in the northern English county of Cumberland, an old tree was uprooted and the hole revealed a mysterious black substance that resembled lead in its softness and metallic shine. But it wasn’t a metal; it was a special form of carbon called graphite.” Some enterprising soul soon found that lumps of it could be used to write on paper. But it was messy, so it was encased in wood, which gave the graphite strength so that it wouldn’t snap — and voila! The pencil was born. When it teamed up with rubber, a star was born. “The pencil’s ability to mark and be erased, to write and be corrected, proved to be a winning formula for writers, musicians, engineers and other creative folk.”
Roald Dahl was obsessed with the Dixon Ticonderoga’s No. 2 pencil; John Steinbeck preferred the Blackwing 602 model, which had a special type of lead, soft, but not prone to breakage. The Faber Co. launched the Blackwing 602 in 1934 with the slogan, “half the pressure, twice the speed.” Stephan Sondheim was a huge fan of them and stockpiled boxes of them when they were discontinued some 50 years later. Today, you can buy a box on eBay for $30 to $40. When I’m feeling flush, I’ll have to check this out!
According to James, people in many walks of life have been moved to invent writing gadgets. Take the ballpoint pen, which was created by an innovative fellow named Laszlo Biro in the 1930s. I’m relieved to know that author Jack Ward feels optimistic about the survival of stationery. Long live paper! “Long live the pen,” Jack enthuses — my sentiments exactly. Are there other writing stuff enthusiasts among you? If so, I hope you’ll give me a shout out! Write on!