What your pencil reveals about you

One day, early in the 20th century, in pre-revolutionary Russia, a little boy lay ill in bed in St Petersburg. He was called Vladimir Nabokov, and he was destined to become a legendary novelist, but at that time was just a sickly child needing care and consolation. Accordingly, his mother went to Treumann's??? - a famous department store in St Petersburg - and returned with an enormous present. Little Vladimir unwrapped it to discover that the gift was "a giant polygonal Faber pencil, four feet long and correspondingly thick". It was part of a promotional window-dressing display and Mrs Nabokov had - presciently - assumed her son might have been coveting it. He had been.

Later he drilled a hole halfway up the pencil to see if the graphite continued for the full length - it did. It was a real pencil. The giant pencil from Treumann's window could have been used to write - by a giant. This Nabokovian anecdote frequently comes to mind whenever I contemplate my own relationship with the pencil, this humble writing implement. A giant four-foot pencil delivered to a future writer ??? It seems almost too neat, too aptly significant, but trust the teller not the tale, in this instance.

Furthermore, as I began to investigate the origins of the pencil, it was something of a revelation to discover that it was invented in England, in the 16th century, in Cumbria, where an incredibly rare supply of pure solid graphite was discovered underground. Graphite sticks from this mine, wrapped in paper or sheepskin, formed the first pencils. Shortly afterwards the wood casing was added and - effectively - the pencil we use today was born. And now 14 billion pencils are manufactured annually around the world.

It's amazing how the pencil continues to flourish as a drawing or writing implement. For artists it is a machine of unrivalled subtlety with almost two-dozen grades of hardness to softness. For writers it presents more of a challenge: the point has to be sharpened regularly (that takes time, requires precision); it can easily break and you have to start again. For notes and jottings it is ideal but for the long haul of an article, or a story, or a novel, it's perhaps second choice to a pen. However, there is always the mechanical pencil.

The mechanical pencil also has a long history but, essentially, it is a 19th-century gadget - the invention of the push-button clutch allowing the feed of the "ever-pointed" pencil, or propelling pencil as it is sometimes known. And here is where I intersect with pencil history - or the pencilverse???, as aficionados term it. I've always liked writing with pencils, and indeed had a lifelong search for the perfect writing implement. I found it, a couple of decades ago, in a Faber-Castell mechanical pencil; my current pink pencil is the latest of many I've owned.

The manuscripts of the first 10 of my novels were written in pencil. I stopped using a mechanical pencil out of a vague fear that the graphite would fade over time and since then have resorted to pen (I always write my first drafts in longhand). But the fear - I now realise - is irrational. Pencil writing endures - perhaps as long as ink. Ink can fade as well, after all.

I think it's because pencil writing can be so effortlessly erased that one feels it's somehow temporary. But, in a way, the potential of erasure is part of the urge, part of the allure, to write in pencil - the prospect of your words' easy disappearance makes them somehow all the more precious. An inked word has to be crossed out - messy. By now, we are beginning to move from solid pragmatism to something more philosophical and pretentious.

The fundamental nature of the pencil is that it is a brilliant invention and will always be with us. The pencil is like the wheel, the button, the comb, the wheelbarrow, the umbrella, the book, the fork, the needle, the compass, the map, the zip - and so forth. Products of humankind's ingenuity that - whatever the mind-boggling technological advances we continue to make - remain irreplaceably super-efficient and thereby unimprovable on their terms.

I look at my desk as I write this introduction (on a computer). Squarely in front of me is a mechanical pencil (a Pilot Shaker). To one side, in the old mug that contains my writing implements, are two other mechanical pencils and three traditional pencils - along with two dipping-pens, I should add (I'm a bit low-tech, I admit). In a cupboard three feet away are several tin pencil boxes containing an array of graphite pencils and coloured pencils (for drawing, not writing). I reach instinctively for a pencil when I want to scrawl a note - or doodle. And I'm constantly buying new mechanical pencils out of a perverse desire to see if I can better my old Faber-Castell. Why? I'm quite happy with the pens I use (fine-point markers, in the main), so why do I keep resorting to pencils?

My latest theory is that it is because only with a pencil can you really establish what your true handwriting is like. I notice that as I move from pencil to biro to felt-tip to fountain pen to rollerball to fine-point marker, my handwriting changes in various small ways, usually for the worse. I'm aware of this - the hand to implement to mark-on-paper interface is affected by the choice of writing apparatus you use. But - intriguingly - I don't think about this when I use a pencil. I now feel that this is probably because the very first things you write with as a child are pencils (back to Nabokov, again). Your sense of yourself, as reflected in your handwriting - which is unique, after all - is best defined by a pencil. Your pencil - in a very real way - is you.

This is William Boyd's introduction to The Secret Life of the Pencil by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney which is published by Laurence King Publishing at $19.99.

This story What your pencil reveals about you first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.