CHICAGO — If you had to name one thing that was emblematic of the back-to-school season, what would it be? Overloaded backpacks, crossing guards and 3-ring binders all have their places in the iconography, but nothing says school like a sharp, yellow, No. 2 pencil.
Pencils were there when we learned to write the alphabet, and the Scantron that grades our SATs is calibrated to read the marks made by that trusty No. 2.
Even in the age of laptops, tablets and smartphones, "a lot of schools still require that students use a woodcase pencil," says Caroline Weaver, owner of a hip pencil store on Manhattan's Lower East Side, CW Pencil Enterprise. But, as the very existence of Weaver's store attests, pencils aren't just for school -- in fact, like other analog tools that have enjoyed a resurgence of interest, pencils are now cool.
There are pencil books and blogs, a pencil podcast, and even a cologne that smells like freshly sharpened pencils. Yet, Weaver points out, the appeal of the pencil is partly due to its unchanging nature -- invented as a mixture of graphite and clay, fired in a kiln and encased in wood, the design dates to the 1700s, and its basic elements are unchanged.
"There really hasn't been an improvement to the design of a woodcase pencil in the last 100 years," Weaver says. "There are all these fancy mechanical pencils, but they still don't function the same as a woodcase pencil. Using a pencil is really a sensory experience and requires a manual commitment, which makes it different from so many of our other tools."
In a modern, technology-driven world, the pencil is unassailable.
People in creative professions have an unwavering commitment to pencil use -- industrial designer Alex Hammond, author of "The Secret Life of the Pencil," says that is partly because for architects, designers, artists and writers, putting a mark on paper is the beginning of the creative process. "An idea is an odd thing," Hammond says. "It's neurons in your brain connecting, but it means nothing until you can communicate it. You might forget it, and then it's lost. Therefore really the spark of creativity is when you can tell someone about it with a drawing or illustration or sketch, a mark on paper."
Well-known pencil users include fashion designer Paul Smith, architect David Adjaye, artist David Shrigley, and authors John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Henry David Thoreau, whose family manufactured Thoreau brand pencils. Hammond's book, a collaboration with photographer Mike Tinney, is a series of portraits of the pencils of famous designers, and their reflections on using pencils. The project came about, Hammond says, because he was thinking about how moments of quiet, concentrated attention to ideas were being eroded by technology.
The pencil, he realized, was "a really nice metaphor" for the moment of creation. "There's no distraction, no notifications popping up, no issue about the speed of your internet. It's really just that quiet reflection period when you can process that idea from your mind and put it on paper."
Wooden pencils offer a tactile quality unlike other writing instruments, and when well-used, they are shaped by the hand that holds them. "I like to think that a little of that person rubs off on the pencil," says Hammond. "If you see that it's not working so well, you have to interact with it a little more by sharpening it." The pencil is the rare object that gives us back control of our surroundings, our tools, our means of production -- simply because you can fix it yourself. "That becomes something of an emotional investment in this object," says Hammond. "You end up loving your pencil."
Of course, all that sharpening can come with its share of frustration, too -- especially if you're using the pencils you bought for school. "The biggest problem with the pencils that people buy for school supplies," says Weaver, "is that in the big box stores, they just don't have much choice. They'll have store brands, but those usually aren't good quality. Or some teachers specify Dixon Ticonderoga, but that brand isn't the same pencil it used to be."
Cheaper pencils, she says, may be made with low-quality wood, which will splinter, or a substandard core, which can shatter inside the wood. "You know when you're sharpening and the pencil core is just falling out? That's what that is." Colored pencils, which have more fragile cores, should be treated with extra care to avoid this problem. "You really can't drop them. Think of it like a piece of ceramic -- that's what a pencil core really is; it's made of clay and fired."
Then there are the pencils that just refuse to sharpen to a straight point. "The problem with a lot of these really garbage pencils that people buy," Weaver says, "is a core that's not centered properly." One quick way to measure quality, she says, is to look at the end of the pencil, to see whether the core looks perfectly centered in the wood.
If you take the time to seek them out, she says, there are American-made pencil brands producing higher-quality pencils that won't be constantly breaking. ("It kind of bums me out that people don't know about those, because they're not that much more expensive, but they last much longer, so it's a better value.") She recommends pencils from General Pencil Co., Musgrave Pencil Co. and Moon Products. And if you're looking for a little adventure in your pencils, she suggests branching out to pencils from Japan or India. One of the most popular pencils she sells, she says, is a Viking pencil commissioned by the Danish government for voting. It includes a hole in the end so that it can be attached to a voting booth.
That doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of pencil obsession: You can learn to decipher the lettering and numbering systems, which indicate the firmness of a pencil's core (and thus the kind of mark it will make.) You can dig into vintage pencils and the tales they have to tell. You can pick a particular favorite pencil, like the fetish-y Blackwing, loved "because it's been used by so many famous people," Weaver says. That includes Chuck Jones, inventor of Bugs Bunny.
As for herself, she doesn't pick favorites. "That would be like trying to pick a favorite child." She just celebrates the big love people still feel for the humble pencil.
"It's crazy," she says. "And ... awesome."