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It’s the weekend, after all, so time for a change of pace. If you have a paperless office, you can probably skip this post. You inhabit a different world. If, however, like most of us, you rely not only on computers, of whatever size and mobility, but on paper and pencil, you might be charmed by two recent books. The first is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton) and the second, James Ward’s The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster).

Mary Norris has worked at The New Yorker for almost 40 years, the last 22 as a query proofreader. Although the bulk of Between You and Me is devoted to an often humorous account of grammar and punctuation, including The New Yorker‘s predilection for commas, it has a wonderful chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.”

Norris became a fan of the soft-“lead” No. 1 pencil and used No. 1’s exclusively at work. Eventually, they became difficult to find, and some of those she did track down turned out to be defective. No. 1’s were pretty well passé. But then, to great fanfare, including a launch party, a company brought back the Blackwing pencil which, to the dismay of many artists, had been discontinued—ungraded but softer than a No. 2—and she was hooked. (She seems to have a lot of company.)

From pencils Norris moves on to erasers, the bane of my existence (I don’t know how I ended up with so many erasers that either do nothing or smear everything), and then to pencil sharpeners. For pencil sharpening fanatics with a sense of humor, there’s a manual called How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees and, better yet, the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio, southeast of Columbus. Just when you were at a loss about where to spend your summer vacation!

* * *

James Ward takes us to the office as well as back to elementary school, beyond pencils and erasers to paper clips, pens, stationery, pencil boxes, highlighters, glue, business cards, post-it notes, staplers, and file cabinets.

What do we learn?

Among other things,

That the word ‘pencil’ derives from the same Latin base as the word ‘penis’ (meaning ‘tail’).

That the first ballpoint pen to be sold in the United States (in 1945) was sold exclusively by Gimbels Department Store in New York and that, despite its high retail price of $12.50 (around $160 today), on the morning of the launch “five thousand people were waiting to swarm through the doors, and fifty extra policemen were hastily dispatched to restrain the throng.” (pp. 45-46)

That the Bureau for At-Risk Youth in New York overlooked “the rather obvious fact that pencils get shorter as they are sharpened” when, in 1998, “they handed out pencils to pupils of a nearby school printed with the slogan ‘too cool to do drugs’. As the students quickly realized, sharpening the pencil changed the message initially to ‘cool to do drugs’ and then simply to ‘do drugs’.” (p. 99) It was only when a ten-year-old pointed out the problem that the company started printing the slogan in the opposite direction.

That, “as the nineteenth century progressed, rubber gradually replaced stale bread as the preferred method of erasing pencil lines, to the relief of all those artists and draftsmen besieged by hungry ducks.” (p. 104)

 

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