On the enduring power of the pencil
I keep thinking about a scene toward the end of “Turn Every Page,” the documentary about the decades-long working relationship between writer Robert Caro (now 87) and his editor Bob Gottlieb (91). The two men are about to sit down for an intensive, head-to-head editing session. They’ve agreed to let the filmmaker, Bob’s daughter Lizzie Gottlieb, capture the interaction on camera—as long as the sound’s turned off. (Editor-writer confidentiality is a sacred thing.) But before they can get started, they need to find a pencil.
This ought to be easy, right? They’re in the offices of Alfred A. Knopf! The place ought to be lousy with pencils. Except it’s not, because who uses pencils anymore? One of Gottlieb’s younger associates—and pretty much everybody is younger at this point—even makes a feeble joke about it.
Writing about “Turn Every Page” in the Atlantic, Gal Beckerman calls the partnership between Caro and Gottlieb “beautifully anachronistic,” both in its longevity and intensity and in how the partners work:
Then there’s their method: Caro puts on a dark suit every day, writes his drafts out in longhand, and copies them onto carbon paper using his Smith Corona typewriter, after which Gottlieb marks them up with a pencil—like a couple of cobblers still making shoes with an awl.
I’ll concede the carbon paper example, but I draw the line at pencils.
Sure, most of the writing and editing I do takes place on my laptop. I’m typing this newsletter on it now. It’s astonishing to remember, when I think back to my late-80s stint as an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books, that when an editor made revisions to an article, the assistants would just…type up a fresh version. And another. And another.
Those days I’m happy to have left behind. The old ways are not always best. You’ll have to pry my laptop from my cold dead hands.
Pencils, though, have stuck with me through one technological evolution after another. You can get fancy about pencils (I don’t), but the basic tech does not change. No plugs, no blue light, no software updates to worry about. Simple, easy, reliable.
Because pencils are so straightforward, they’ve long been associated in my mind with the kind of focus that likes to elude me when I am working onscreen. When I need to revise a piece, I still like to print out the current draft and read through it with a freshly sharpened pencil in hand. Even the act of sharpening that pencil signals to my brain that it’s time to get down to work and pay attention.
That carries over to reading as well. In terms of format, I’m nimble when I need to be. I like audiobooks and appreciate some of the advantages of e-books, like being able to control-F my way to specific passages quickly. These days, when I take on a review assignment, I’ll work with e-galleys when I need to. Economically and environmentally, digital review copies make sense.
My favorite way of reading for work still involves marking up a print galley with a pencil. My marginalia isn’t fancy: check marks, exclamation points, smiley faces, brief references, short outbursts of indignation scrawled alongside the text (“No!” “Really???” “This makes no sense!”). But the act of making marks as I go keeps my readerly attention focused. Onscreen, I’m more likely to drift from thought to tangential thought. I get it, Bob Gottlieb. Don’t ever let them take your pencils away.
“Turn Every Page” stuck with me for another reason: It’s so very human, so un-algorithmic, the antithesis of AI, the opposite of an LLM (large language model) like ChatGPT. Caro and Gottlieb have talked and argued and cut their way through thousands of pages over the last 50 years. They fight about semicolons. They’re meticulous about sentences and sources. Caro still goes to the LBJ Library with his wife and research partner, Ina Caro, and they sit at adjoining tables and comb through boxes of archival material. (“Turn every page” means just that—look at everything. You never know when you will strike archival gold.)
Caro’s of course in a unique position. Almost no other writer will ever have the luxury of a publisher and editor willing and able to support them through decades of painstaking work. Likewise with Gottlieb, an outlier among today’s overworked editors who have to wrangle too many manuscripts as well as sales projections and marketing meetings and all the rest of it.
But as the AI tide rises all around us, it’s good to be reminded of what algorithms can’t do. You don’t have to edit with a pencil, a la Gottlieb, or stuff the carbon copies of your typed-up daily pages into a cabinet, as Caro does, to appreciate the human labor that powers a project like Caro’s epic series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
More analog fun:
—If you love notebooks and note-taking, check out Jillian Hess’s Substack newsletter, Noted. Hess, an English professor at CUNY, shares cool/inspiring/unusual notebooks and the note-taking habits of notables new and old—Kurt Cobain, Frida Kahlo, Oscar Wilde, and many more. It’s reliably fascinating. Hess’s recent post “Five ways to write in your books” has me thinking I need to up my marginalia game.
Food for thought: Stop publishing so many books (not you, Bob Caro! You keep working!)
From the clutter files
—Via Dezeen magazine: For Milan design week, Italian architect Paola Navone created an exhibit called “Take It or Leave It,” which featured “hundreds of eclectic items” from her personal collection. I especially love this twist: Visitors to the exhibit can enter a lottery to be matched with an item, which they can take home with them or leave behind. This kind of intentional deaccessioning fascinates me. Navone describes her motivation as making way for new inspirations by rehoming objects that have influenced her in the past:
"I decided to give away a mix of objects accumulated over the years, all those things that were catching my eyes and I decided to bring home," Navone told Dezeen. "Souvenirs, objet trouvés, prototypes, second hand objects, collectibles… all things that in some way belongs to my aesthetic vocabulary."
"Now I would like to have more space to bring in new things, new references, to renew myself, so I decided to give away all those objects from which I have already 'learned' something."
—I haven’t had a chance to check out the new reality-TV series “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” but it’s now high on my to-watch list. Because, yes, we're all going to die, and no, you shouldn't leave it to your heirs to clean up all of your crap. (If you need convincing on that point, let me refer you to my book Clutter: An Untidy History.) Hat tip tofor alerting me to the show.
Yours in deaccessioning,
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