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

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Oxford University Press, Sep 24, 2009 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 280 pages
2 Reviews
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.

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User Review  - francophoney - LibraryThing

While not particularly dry, one can't help but wonder if the author is technologically-challenged, or if he really thought it was necessary to explain how how things work on such laymen's terms. Is the target audience of this book really going to need a description of what an Instant Message is? Read full review

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An entertaining history of techno-pessimism and the endless battles between techno-optimists and skeptics about the impact of new technologies on life, learning, culture, and economies. Baron rightly points out how those who have a "common tendency to romanticize the good old ways" of doing things often fail to appreciate how new technology can benefit society -- including themselves. He walks us through a litany of historical examples--the printing press, the telegraph, telephones, typewriters, pocket calculators, personal computers, word processors, webpages, blogs, social-networking sites, and more--and identifies the usual pattern: we greet each new technology with deep distrust and dire warnings, but in time we adapt to the new realities. Indeed, as a species, we have an unparalleled ability to learn new ways of doing things. We don't always like technological change, and often we deeply resent or fear it, but in the end, we learn to live with it and eventually to embrace it.
He shows how this cycle is once again playing out today as a new generation of skeptics deride the Internet and digital technologies. These overly pessimistic critics (think: Neil Postman, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, Mark Helprin) turn a blind eye to both the wonders of the digital age and humanity's ability to adapt. As Baron persuasively argues, "English survives, conversation thrives online as well as off, and on balance, digital communications seems to be enhancing human interaction, not detracting from it." In fact, we live in a world of unprecedented media abundance that previous generations would have found unimaginable.
Baron's retelling of the history of techno-skepticism leaves one with the nagging feeling that these debates will never cease. Each generation will witness a technological watershed that brings out a fresh crop of both pollyannas and pessimists. But he shows why would should have hope that the optimists typically have it right and that society benefits from technological change. [see my complete review of his book on the Technology Liberation Front blog: http://techliberation.com/2009/10/23/review-a-better-pencil-by-dennis-baron ]


1 Writing It Down
2 TeknoFear
3 Thoreaus Pencil
4 National Handwriting Day
5 Writing on Clay
6 When WordStar Was King
7 Trusting the Text
8 Writing on Screen
9 Everyones an Author
10 A Space of Ones Own
11 The Dark Side of the Web
12 From Pencils to Pixels
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About the author (2009)

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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