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

January 21, 2010

Dennis Baron is never any less than genial in this account of the relationship between reading, writing and technology. Unfortunately, he is never very much more than genial either. A Better Pencil is not that sharp.

The book's argument is straightforward. New tools for writing and reading - whether clay tablets, pencils, typewriters or personal computers - are initially greeted with suspicion, treated at best as unreliable and at worst as heralding the disintegration of grammar and the collapse of civilisation. However, as time passes, they are widely accepted. Writing technologies that shock one generation are the stuff of dull routine for the next. In general, Baron considers technological progress to be a Good Thing, as it allows more people to communicate in more ways. Beyond that, it is difficult to predict much of anything.

The difficulty with this account is not that it is wrong. In many ways, it is a useful counter-argument to the gloomy techno-pessimists. Critics such as Sven Birkerts argue that "words which appear and disappear" on a computer screen are radically more indeterminate than printed books, making the reading of hypertext into an arbitrary game. However, Baron discusses monks in the early modern period who worried that printing was "an essentially superficial process which stamps text onto perishable paper". Birkerts' critique of hypertext thus turns out to be a new version of a rather stale argument; one that has been reiterated in some form every time a major new writing technology has been introduced.

The book's problem is rather more prosaic. It is quite dull. Its core argument is a useful antidote to technophobes, but is not itself particularly novel or controversial. The writing is folksy, sometimes painfully so. Baron has a weakness for anecdotes, many of which are only marginally connected to the book's underlying claims and ideas. Sadly, none of his numerous diversions into storytelling is especially memorable.

Baron's writing style is amiable rather than compelling. He complains that Theodore Kaczynski's writing is "droning", "clumsy" and "repetitive" and that he ought to have paid more attention to his copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. This invites unhappy comparisons, especially since Baron immediately goes on to suggest that "to put it mildly ... (Kaczynski's) manifesto is not a page-turner". Baron might have done well himself to consult George Orwell's admonishments about the deadening power of cliche before writing this book.

A Better Pencil's discussion of new technologies is aimed at the general reader rather than the specialist or knowledgeable amateur. Baron devotes much space to explaining what these technologies are and how they came into being, and relatively little to why they are interesting. He relies extensively on journalistic accounts and research that is showing its age; he does not seem familiar with recent debates.

While his account is factually accurate for the most part, it does make some significant errors. Contrary to Baron's suggestion, it is possible to "sign" an email so as to certify it, although this is rarely done. His account of the 1960s battles between "rogue programmers" and "vice-presidents and account executives" over email etiquette is unsourced and improbable, given the technologies that were then available. Email was primitive and complicated to use. It did not usually travel between computers, let alone across the "clusters of computers" or "company intranets" that Baron describes.

There is much that is worthwhile in A Better Pencil, but little that is genuinely compelling. It is a suet pudding of a book; filling but not very appetising. There are some parts of it where the flavour has not entirely been boiled out. Readers who are interested in the technologies of reading and writing but do not know much about them may find this book of value. Others may prefer to find their reading material elsewhere.

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

By Dennis Baron. Oxford University Press. 8pp, £13.99. ISBN 9780195388442. Published 29 October 2009

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