Book Review: The Secret Life of the Pencil by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney

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The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and Their Pencils started out as a photographic project by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney. The concept is a simple one: the duo asked renowned creatives – artists, designers, architects, etc. – to send in their pencils, and then these tools were photographed in extreme close-up. The result is a book full of wonderfully detailed, bright, and captivating photographs that will easily draw you in.

That’s not all, though. There is also a short introduction by writer William Boyd and a series of interviews at the end of the book conducted with twenty-one of the aforementioned pencil owners. If I have one complaint it’s that I wish the interviews were integrated with the photography (rather than being stacked in the back), and I also wish there were more of them.

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Many of the interviewees also contributed drawings done with their pencils. My favorite happens to be be the concept designs for Lego characters by Matthew James Ashton, but I also liked seeing the courtroom art of Julia Quenzler and designs of makeup artists Michèle Burke.

It’s easy for me to recommend The Secret Life of the Pencil. It’s a short and inexpensive book, easily found for under $15, and it would be great for the coffee-table or as a small gift for any creative person. And if you really like the photographs, the book a heck of a lot cheaper than ordering the prints.

Book Review: The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver

It might sound odd, but when first opening The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon by Caroline Weaver, the detail that immediately struck me was the thickness of the book’s paper stock. These days, every reader has become accustomed to cheap, thin paper, but it seems to me that a bit of thoughtfulness and care was put into the literal pages of The Pencil Perfect. And that thoughtfulness and care is likely a reflection of Weaver’s devotion to the subject matter. After all, it’s impossible to finish this book without being impressed by Weaver’s passion for and fascination with the humble pencil.

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Much of The Pencil Perfect is a history lesson. Weaver traces the origin of the wood-cased pencil from the discovery of graphite (and its first use as a writing instrument) to its eventual industrialization. As Weaver points out, much of this history is unwritten, but she has done a wonderful job of following it regardless. She’s managed to fill this book with amusing stories, great illustrations (by Oriana Fenwick), light technical info, some personal anecdotes, and even a “How to Start a Pencil Collection” guide. It’s a short book, yet it manages to pack in quite a lot.

That’s not to say that the book itself perfect. A handful of typos worked their way into this first printing, and I wasn’t a fan of Weaver’s use of in-text notes. These notes have a tendency to break up the flow of the chapters in a way that footnotes typically do not. However, I can agree to labeling these criticisms as nit-picks.

So, if you’ve ever wondered about the technological or culture history of the pencil, an object that everyone has likely used thousands of times throughout their life, then The Pencil Perfect is a worthwhile purchase. But be warned: though the pencil isn’t typically an object which attracts much devotion, Weaver’s enthusiasm can be contagious.


P.S. I also enjoyed the little Field Notes Easter egg.

Book Review: Pretty Much Everything by Aaron Draplin (+The Everything Else Kit)

Aaron Draplin might possibly be the most prolific graphic designer of our time. He’s best known for making logos, producing a lots of stuff, and creating the booming Field Notes brand of notebooks. This year he decided to cram his life’s work into a book, appropriately titled, Pretty Much Everything.26240629

Pretty Much Everything is an autobiography, a textbook, a coffee-table book, and a vanity project all squeezed between a bunch of black and orange pages. Much of the book chronicles Draplin’s career, from his humble origins in the Midwest, to his snowboarding days in the Northeast, and the steady growth of his Draplin Design Co. brand. He talks a lot about his influences and his family throughout, and he offers up his design philosophy (which can probably be boiled down to something like ‘work hard, enthusiastically, and be nice to people’).

Just looking through the pictures, it’s hard not to be impressed by Draplin’s output. Between his fondness for bright colors, his “thick lines” artistic style, and his aptitude for space economics, it’s easy to flip this book open to a random page and just sit and stare for a while. Practically every inch of this book is filled with stuff to look at.

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Aside from a couple of big grammatical errors, Pretty Much Everything is really quite a delightful book. Any student of graphic design will learn a lot, any fan of Field Notes notebooks will get their fill, too, and lovers of Pantone Orange 021 will find a kindred spirit within these pages as well. And beyond that, Draplin comes across as a very friendly person, someone who lives and dies by his friends.

Everything Else Enhancement Kit

If, after closing the final pages of Pretty Much Everything, you long for more Aaron Draplin, then you’re in luck. Along with the book’s release, Draplin began selling an “Everything Else” Enhancement Kit (aka EEEK), which includes a bunch of bonus stuff.

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At $55, the kit is about double the price of the book. So it’s probably best considered by hardcore fans only. However, you will get your money’s worth. There are bookmarks, stickers, a handful of prints, a certificate of authenticity (in case you were worried), and a Pretty Much Everything slip case (that, to my eye, looks more red than orange).

There’s plenty of other stuff too; a pencil, a button, a patch – and two 3-packs of a special Field Notes edition. Those Field Notes books are pretty unique, and I’ll definitely have a lot more to say about them in a future review.

Book Review: The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek

This may come as a surprise, but a lot of people have strong feelings about handwriting. Ask a few friends, “should children be taught cursive at school?” and you’re bound to receive a variety of vigorous opinions. Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, may have learned this the hard way. In August of this year, just prior to the book’s publication, Trubek penned a New York Times op-ed piece headlined Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter, and it received over one-hundred comments and letters. Almost all of these reader responses disagreed with Trubek’s call for schools to refocus handwriting education elsewhere, and one reader even went far enough to call keyboards “offensive tools.”

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In some ways Trubek’s newly released book is a 154-page extension of that NYT op-ed, but it’s more aptly characterized as a simple history book. While she eventually gets around to discussing the digital age, Trubek fills most of the book’s pages by explaining the cultural evolution of writing, from early cuneiform and hieroglyphics to the common Palmer and D’Nealian cursive fonts that most of us use today. It covers a lot of the same ground as Paper by Mark Kurlansky, though Trubek’s narrower focus makes for a much quicker read.

When Trubek gets around to discussing the future of handwriting near the end of the book, it’s a lot less controversial than I’d expected given much of the ire it has created. Her argument boils down to this: writing’s role is changing in the digital age, as it has throughout history. Just as the printing press reduced the need for scribes, computers reduce our need for handwriting. It’s simply not as critical as it once was, and perhaps the time children spend learning handwriting could be reallocated toward something more useful (like computer skills). I’m unclear whether Trubek’s argument extends to learning basic, legible print handwriting – something which still has a lot of utility – but her main contention seems to be with cursive.

Trubek goes on to discuss the benefits of handwriting that are presented by its advocates, though she largely dismisses them as being cultural arguments. However, the cultural element of cursive is, in my opinion, the best reason for including it in a school curriculum. At least for the time being, cursive is still in use, and everyone would benefit from knowing the script to some extent. Though it should be pointed out that Trubek still envisions a place for cursive, at least as an art form, a hobby, or a tool for developing fine motor skills.

Whether you agree with Trubek’s main argument or not, anybody with a passionate opinion about this topic will be fascinated by the bulk of this book. The history lesson it contains is worthwhile, and the book is short enough to complete within a few sittings. And, who knows, after finishing the book you might be inclined to write the author a handwritten note in response.

Book Review: Paper by Mark Kurlansky

Most of us spend very little time thinking about paper, but for a moment, consider its abundance in our day-to-day lives. Even for those that eschew physical books, notepads, and snail mail, it can be hard to ignore paper’s many other forms: wall paper, toilet paper, movie posters, restaurant receipts, product packaging, and billboard advertisements, to name just a handful. The stuff is everywhere, and since its invention in China around 2,000 years ago, paper has played a pivotal role in art, education, communication, and bureaucracy. In his new book Paper: Paging Through History, Mark Kurlansky chronicles the impact paper has had in our society over these many years.

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Anyone familiar with Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, the book or the PBS documentary, will be familiar with the style Kurlansky uses in Paper. Rather than dictating a straight timeline of events, Kurlansky describes the history of society with paper at its center-point. In other words, while the invention and technical development of paper is a main feature, the broader lesson is in how paper affected subjects like literacy, spoken language, science, religion, and record-keeping throughout the millennia.

Paper begins with the invention of written language and the use of pre-paper products (such as papyrus, wax tablets, and parchment), as well as a bit of speculation paper’s origins. It then follows the trail of paper from the East, through the Middle East , and into Europe and North America. Along the way the process has changed, new uses for the product were found, and paper-making became a large-scale industry. You might be surprised, but it’s a long journey from manually-produced paper, made primarily from discarded rags, to the machine-produced paper, made primarily from farmed wood-chips. Also included is a discussion of the future of paper in our digital world, the resurgence of artisanal paper, and the environmental impact of the mass-production in paper.

Overall, the style might be a bit on the dry side for some readers. The book isn’t written in the fun, light style of non-fiction authors like Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell. But for those interested in a bit of history, much of it will be truly fascinating. Consider the following question: if paper was invented in China, why did the printed book industry take hold in Europe first? If that’s the sort of thing that makes you scratch your chin, then I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of Paper.