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A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution 1st Edition

3.6 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195388442
ISBN-10: 0195388445
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Editorial Reviews


"[A] splendid history... Baron's retelling of the history of techno-skepticism is edifying."--City Journal

"Baron offers a breezy overview of the ways that technology is shaping reading and writing practices. This book will be valued in future as a well-contextualized survey of issues that surface among writers in the current online landscape. Today's reader will appreciate the conversational style and the reminders that many of the supposed consequences of the digital revolution were ever thus. Some may smile with recognition as they recall WordStar and the evolution of word processing applications." --CHOICE

"His fast-paced, chatty, engaging history of reading and writing implicitly leads toward some sort of insight about the future."--Frederick E. Allen, Technology and Culture

About the Author

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195388445
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195388442
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 0.9 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,115,372 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin B. Wheeler on September 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified 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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Format: Hardcover Verified 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).
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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.
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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.
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