A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution


Computers, now the writer's tool of choice, are still blamed by skeptics for a variety of ills, from speeding writing up to the point of recklessness, to complicating or trivializing the writing process, to destroying the English language itself.

A Better Pencil puts our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before. The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.

Here then is a fascinating history of our tangled dealings with a wide range of writing instruments, from ancient papyrus to the modern laptop. With dozens of illustrations and many colorful anecdotes, the book will enthrall anyone interested in language, literacy, or writing.


In the past twenty years, our attitude toward computers and the internet has moved from suspicion or curiosity to dependency. When the World Wide Web was young, people used to find something online and ask, “How do I know if it’s any good?” Now we think, “If it’s not online, it’s probably not worth looking for.”

In what seems from a historical perspective like the blink of an eye, we’ve shifted our focus from distrusting the internet to embracing it. Computer technology has taken control over our words in ways and at a speed that no previous technology of literacy ever did before. Some of us approached the computer revolution with optimism, others with suspicion, and many with caution. But most of the people reading this book by now own a pc, or use one regularly at work, at school, or in a public library. in the decades between the 1980s and the present, the personal computer has gone from an expensive and forbidding, and far from personal, curiosity to a near necessity. the 2000 census reported that more than half of America’s 105 million households had a computer. That percentage is a lot higher today.

Not everyone celebrates our increasing dependence on digitized words, and a few staunch critics see the computer destroying life as we know it. But for most Americans, and for more and more people elsewhere in the world, the computer is becoming the tool of choice for writing, whether for work, for school, or for what we do when we’re not working or studying, and while not too many people are reading electronic books yet, more and more of us are gradually shifting the rest of our reading from the page to the screen.

Computer users regularly shop online, bank online, meet online, read online, and write online, not just in America, but elsewhere in the world as . . .

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