Friday, August 11, 2006


Having finished my last fun novel of the summer the other night, I buckled down to start re-reading for classes this semester. I'm stupidly teaching two new classes, one in early modern drama (yay!) and one on the Body in Literature. And many of my departmental colleagues (including myself) decided last fall to teach a common book in our first year writing classes, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I'd listened to the book a couple of years ago, and thought it was interesting and stimulating, but hadn't actually put my eyes to it.

For me, reading and listening are very different activities. I enjoy listening when I'm driving or trying to fall asleep at night, but I don't much enjoy listening to hard stuff, certainly not stuff in my field (though I really should try out some of the newer Shakespeare CDs!). (Okay, who wouldn't like to give The Faerie Queene or Arcadia a try listening? With a really good reader, of course! And on a long drive, by a dark woods, say, with a storm brewing.)

When I read, I pretty much read pencil in hand, and do a lot of recursive going over things, and make notes in margins (I look up words and write down definitions and stuff). If I'm planning to teach the text (rather than reading for research or to keep up with stuff), I tend to do much more signposting with my notes, so that I'll be able to go through the text later and remember what I'd like to talk to students about. In either case, I usually have a notepad by my side.

And that's what my obsession's about. I simply must have a perfect pencil in hand to read and take notes.

It's not a new obsession: when I took the SAT and ACH exams way back in the stone age, I went in with a box of newly, terminally, nay, fatally sharpened pencils, and used every single one during each exam because they'd go dull on me fast and I didn't want to get up to sharpen between filling in the stupid bubbles.

In college, I got in the habit of using non-water-soluble ink, special technical pens that you could take field notes with, and then they wouldn't run when they got rained on and such. That habit lasted through my Peace Corps years and beyond, into my first years back into school (though not exclusively). My second Chaucer text (Everyman was my first, then the Riverside for a second class on Troilus) has a layer of tiny scrawled notes in that very obvious ink.

When I started doing a lot of grading, though, I needed to move to pencils because I needed to be able to erase my more impatient comments. (I got reprimanded by a professor for whom I was a TA once for writing "huh?" in the margin of a paper that described some plot point from MSND which had nothing to do with the play, and revealed only that the student had no clue. I should have asked the professor what he would have written.)

And when I began doing archival research, my pencil habit was reinforced, because no archive I've ever met allows anyone to have pens in the area of old texts. More than one librarian has done a close walk by to make sure that my mechanical pencil was a pencil and not a stealthily stowed-away pen.

So I started using mechanical pencils to grade because I dull regular old number 2s too fast, and my writing's hard enough to read even with a sharp tip. Happily, mechanical pencils are sharp again with just a click. Since then, my life has been a search for good, reliable mechanical pencils.

At first, I liked pencils with really narrow leads, but I had to adjust when I could no longer find thinner pencils OR leads within a ten mile radius of my town. Ideally, I'd have a fairly soft thin lead that would write reasonably darkly.

To complicate things, just when I find a pencil type that fits my hand well, it always seems to get discontinued by the manufacturer. The last time I found one I liked, I bought three packages of three, just to know that I'd have extras for a while. My pencil of the moment is a green Staedtler with a black rubber grip piece that I've rather grown to like. (It's sort of like this, but not. I have a sad feeling that they don't make mine anymore!) It's so worn that you can't see any trademarking on it, but it works well. AND, I found two of them still in a pack in my office moving box today!

I also have a thing for fountain pens. (Yes, that's the kind I use. Now you know.)

Levenger is my favorite porn browsing shop. (Hmmm, I wonder how many bizarre hits THAT will get me?)

Once, a friend of mine and I decided to try to cut ourselves some goose quill pens. We went to a local golf course and picked up goose quills, and then went to the microfilm collection at the local university and made a copy of a 16th century penmanship book's section on cutting pens. It took several tries, but we finally got one that sort of worked. But let me say, before I click my pencil lead out and get back to my reading, that I'm really glad people invented pencils, ball points, and so forth. Thank you, inventors!

1 comment:

  1. Fountain pens -- yes!

    Levengers -- yes! yes!

    And look at Fahrney's for stimulation of fountain pen lust --