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A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A slim book, but not an easy read. Lots of repetition of ideas and content, as if the book had been written as separate essays and then stitched together without the aid of a good editor. He goes off on tangents within chapters which often had me re-reading pages to see if I had missed a transition.

Pitched as a book about how people have reacted to and adopted new communication technologies, it is really more a light historical overview of the topic. Disappointing. If you like technology and history you've already read most of this book elsewhere. Lots of rehashing of Petroski's book on the pencil and on Thoreau. Chapters on handwriting and Wordstar don't really add much. The last few chapters begin to get at what I thought the book was about -- how people react to and adopt new writing/communication technologies. The illustrations are also not the best, although some are at least interesting. The early Photoshop ad showing Marilyn Monroe holding Abraham Lincoln's arm is something I had not seen before.

If you haven't any background in the history of technology and want a very brief overview, this might be of interest. For me there are better sources and better edited books written in a more engaging style.I expected a lot more than I got.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Have you ever felt yourself longing for the "good old days" when you could just sit down at a typewriter and clack away to your heart's content? Or better yet, take out a freshly sharpened pencil and practically feel your thoughts pouring out onto the page? If so, then you're not alone. According to Dennis Baron's A Better Pencil, people from all walks of life have been publicly mourning the loss of older (and therefore somehow purer?) writing technologies, while at the same time expressing those opinions through word processors and websites. Baron adds that such laments are nothing new. People have mistrusted emerging writing technologies ever since the first marks appeared on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. Several millennia later, Plato warned against the ill effects of writing on human memory, despite being among the 10% of Athenians who could read and write. Jump ahead another two thousand years, when the scribes of the Middle Ages feared that Gutenberg was doing the Devil's work, although they were probably more afraid that his printing press would put them out of a job. Likewise, Thoreau's disparaging of the telegraph may have had as much to do with protecting the family business - Thoreau Drawing Pencils - as it did with protecting the environment. Even the humble pencil, beloved of neo-Luddites everywhere, was once decried because its erasability meant that students no longer had to carefully plan essays in their heads before committing words to paper. Instead, they could (god forbid!) revise as they wrote.

Today, computers allow us to revise in ways that don't leave so much as a smudge behind. For example, I can revise this review a hundred times and no one but me would know (although it's fairly obvious that I didn't). Most newsgroups and wikis allow for revisions even after posting something for all the wired world to see. At the same time, critics claim that web writing (e.g., email, IM, blogs, etc.) causes writers to ignore the well-established conventions of grammar and spelling, thus posing a threat to the survival of the English language. But as anyone who's ever taken a linguistics course knows - and as Baron is quick to point out over and over again - languages change, and one of the reasons for this change is the impact that new technologies have on the way we think, talk, and write about the world.

One might expect that by repeatedly driving home the same point throughout much of the book, Baron would come across as a terrible bore. To the contrary, he is insightful, humorous, self-deprecating, instructional, and encouraging. His detailed history of the pencil, from its humble beginnings as a carpenter's tool to its current status as an emblem of simpler times, helps us reposition our hopes and fears regarding computers in a historical context. Baron understands our reluctance to embrace new technologies, going so far as to imply that it may be in our best interest as a species to maintain a little healthy suspicion (imagine what would happen if we ALL embraced each new innovation with unbridled enthusiasm!), and he certainly doesn't shy away from discussing the "dark side" of the Internet. But as Baron points out, the pencil is itself a technological marvel, one that required as much engineering know-how in its day as the iPad does now. That realization makes any anti-technology screed seem all the more futile. The fact remains technologies come and go. Perhaps the best those of us with a nostalgic streak can hope for is that some of the older ones will continue to coexist with the newer ones... at least for a few more decades.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron puts forth the argument that so many in the field of Composition have over-reacted to the role of technology and writing, and that in fact writing has always been technology. Using the metaphor (and analogy) of the pencil, Baron demonstrates that most of the resistance to how computers and other "new media" devices are affecting composition is no different than the age-old arguments against all new forms of communication mediums. While this is a good argument and a useful swing of the pendulum from reactionary Luddites, Baron fails to offer a serious treatment of many of the most substantial critiques of new media as revolutionary rather than evolutionary and all the problems that results in.

While offering a narrative history of resistance to the tools of communication from the clay tablet to the typewriter, Baron does not seem to treat the sweeping rhetorical changes specific to new media technology and how that can (should?) impact composition. The first of two fundamental differences in composition is the audience(s) that new media authors should (must?) consider as a result of the delivery method. No longer does a composition target an individual reader, but instead social networks, blogs, wikis, and tweets all can be read by millions. The rhetorical choices one makes as a result of this larger and mostly unkown audience are significant, and yet Baron still wants to say that the computer is only another in a long line of tools that we use to compose with.

The second rhetorical revolutionary change is the time from composition to publishing. From our daily news sources to our professional and personal compositions, little time is spent analyzing what was said and the accuracy of what was said before the "send" key is pressed. True, it does not HAVE to be this way, but in a society where the speed of communicatiom is highly praised (can you do it in 140 characters or less?) that is the result.

I appreciated the narrative style and the lesson in the history of writing tools. But to suggest that new media and technology is just another pencil is to ignore the rhetorical challenges of a generation.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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.]
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on May 12, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
People always complain about the new technology and media. They think that this is all something new. This book puts that to rest.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I enjoyed Baron's look at the history of the writer and the reader. I found his research to be quite compelling; I always enjoy pieces that take our current predicaments and contrast them with historical precedents to find similarities. I try to do the same with my own pieces Why New Systems Fail: Theory and Practice Collide, but I digress.

There were a few claims that I found to be a bit overstated or simplified, particularly about blogging and the adoption of the Internet.

Great reading.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I read this book as a required reading for a college course. I was surprised at the high level of information the book contained. The book was easy to follow and allowed me to actually enjoy reading the assigned material for the course. I highly recommend this book whether its required or not.
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1 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I have not read this....and will not until it is available for my Kindle...I find it paradoxical a book with this focus is not being published for the Kindle. Sort of defeats the message.
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