Apart from some interesting bits about the challenges presented by, and the romanticism associated with, various writing tools and implements, Dennis Baron’s A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution is a very repetitive book with little to say. Essentially, Baron gives laborious, truly unnecessary explanations of some of the most common and basic writing means — from pencils and typewriters to Facebook and IMs — fit only for those to whom these technologies are totally alien (so perhaps it will be of use to folks 500 years from now).
On the positive side, there’s a point made by Baron that, while not needing a book’s length to make, is important and worth remembering: Every new means of setting words down has elicited both exciting expansion of the ability to write and publish, as well anxiety over the alleged dire consequences for our culture. And every time, we seem to agree that the advance was worth the ensuing mess and uncertainty. But it’s fun to note that, yes, even the pencil once seemed a bridge too far for some folks, and we can keep that in mind when we wonder at the wisdom of things like Tumblr and Twitter and what they might be doing to the art of writing.
Baron also uses the book as a clumsy sledgehammer to attack those he sees as Luddites and tech skeptics. I’m sympathetic to Baron’s position, certainly, but it’s not enough to save the book. Interestingly, Baron may be one among a very rare species: the pro-technology curmudgeon.
But skip this one for now, at least for the next 500 years.