When Pencils Could Talk


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If Pencils Could Talk

The world makes sense again—
Pencil Talk has reappeared through its index page (click):


Update: As of November 1st, Pencil Talk will go offline for good. No word yet as to whether an archive will be made available, but I’m hopeful that a concerted effort might be made to produce an indexed PDF (or something similar).

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“Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations”

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Steven Connor, Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, UK, has written a new book titled: Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations (+1 for the period, rather than a colon, after “Words” in the title). Borrowing in part from the publisher’s description: “Steven Connor seeks to understand spoken human language outside words, a realm that encompasses the sounds we make that bring depth, meaning, and confusion to communication… he reveals the beliefs, the myths, and the responses that surround the growls, stutters, ums, ers, and ahs of everyday language.”

The title had me wondering if he mightn’t have investigated some familiar territory, and it turns out he did:

hum©2014 Reaktion Books

The following isn’t a criticism of the book, just a related issue that I’ve wanted to mention.

One of the issues that can confuse matters related to Gould and his vocalizations is the usage of the word “hum.” I find more often than not that both fans and critics of Gould’s recordings—musicians and non-musicians alike—tend to use the words “hum” and “humming” to describe the apparent vocal phenomena that occurs in his performances. This description isn’t necessarily incorrect (he does in fact hum at times), but there is a broad spectrum of vocalizing to be found in his recordings. The physical and cognitive components of humming differ in nature to those of, say, “singing”, which in turn have separate physical relationships and musical contexts associated with them as found in Gould’s performances.

Secondly, there are psychological characteristics associated with humming (e.g. a sense of withdrawal from outside stimulus) that may get freely associated with any vocalizing Gould may have done. With those instances, one has the unenviable task then of differentiating whether Gould was actively shielding himself from the outside world (e.g. the audience, recording engineers, etc.), or making an extraordinary attempt to access the inner, “ecstatic” experience (as Gould called it).

Biographer and philosopher Geoffrey Payment offers this description of Gould’s notion of “ecstasy”:

“Gould uses the term “ecstasy” indiscriminately for a quality of the music, a quality of the performance, an attitude of the performer, and an attitude of the listener. But his lack of discrimination is intentional, and is the essence of Gould’s meaning: that “ecstasy” is a delicate thread binding together music, performance, performer and listener in a web of shared awareness of innerness.”

Connor’s book of course is about much more than Gould’s humming, and it’s an interesting foray into the search for deep meaning in the seemingly meaningless.

NB: Contrapuntalism is not associated with the author or the publisher, and receives no compensation for links or referrals. 

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To Edith from Will


A.W. Faber’s English Polygrade Lead-Pencils were first brought to market in 1837. From the consistency of the leads to the detailed printing and packaging, they represented the pinnacle of mid-19th century pencil-making:


Polygrade sets came in a variety of configurations: some with as many as eighteen pencils in them, others included a sharpening knife and an eraser:



This set has seven pencils, ranging in grade from BBB to HH. The leads are square, and the imprint looks almost as if it were burnished into the cedar. It’s difficult to compare their performance to modern pencils: the darkest grades leave nice, strong lines but they are far from what you might call “smooth.” Instead I’d say that they are “soft” but with a little more bite, depending on the paper type.


For an item that was made more than 130 years ago the quality of the materials, design, and execution are something to marvel at. But this set has an extra surprise, located on the bottom of the box: An inscription from October 11, 1881:


To Edith from Will
Oct 11/81.

This personal and poignant connection to history illuminates one of the intangible qualities that, for me at least, sets wood-cased pencils apart from most other writing instruments: When I lift one of these Faber Polygrade pencils from the box, then lightly grip the barrel as I press its lead to the page, it’s like a species of time travel. I am instantly transported to, and have direct contact with, every person who has written with this same pencil—all the way back to 1881. My experience—the sight, sound, smell, and sensation of working with this wood-cased time machine—is essentially no different than theirs. You can say similar things about all writing instruments but it’s not quite the same: Bleistifte sind geduldig.

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Making a Lyra (Fan) Out Of Me in Milan

A rainy day in Milan meant there’d be no visiting the Duomo


Instead the afternoon was put to good use attending to instruments, which were taking a bit of beating passing through many less-than-sensitive hands.

I know next to nothing about the Lyra Lead Pencil Company, whose origins date back to the early 1800s. They are another of the venerable Bavarian pencil-making houses, with a rich history and a large variety of products. One of those products is No. 4326 in their catalog:


It’s a telescoping pocket pencil with pencil refills:


The barrel has a ring attached and seems to be finished in a burgundy-colored enamel, and it weighs next to nothing:


It’s similar in form to any number of pocket pencils made by the Faber houses (especially that of Johann Faber). What’s surprising is its size:


It’s small. Very small. Small to the point of being unusable. I don’t have terribly large hands but even when extended this pencil is nearly impossible to write with, something that puzzles me. A knowledgable friend though had an insightful comment about its size: it may be that the company was less concerned about its usefulness than it was about demonstrating that they were able to make pencils that small. This makes a lot of sense to me, though I’ll add that since it came with so many refills it seems to me there was at least the hope that it would be used in some fashion.


The lead is rather soft—I’d estimate something like an American No. 1 pencil—and the diameter of the lead is quite large in proportion to the diameter of the pencil itself.

If it was in fact Lyra’s intention to simply impress consumers with their manufacturing ingenuity and prowess, I’d say No. 4326 was a complete success.

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Par Ys


The toponym “Paris”, like many place-names, is derived from the name of a region’s ancient inhabitants: in this case it was the Parisii. But there is another explanation I’ve always liked despite being apocryphal. It has to do with the imaginary city of Ys (of Sunken Cathedral fame), and that one would travel to the area we now call “Paris” par (by, through, via) Ys.

Par Ys.

This was going through my mind as I was riding the Metro to Rue de Rome, the street where one of my favorite sheet music stores can be found, La Flûte de Pan.


I first visited this store in 1997 and bought what has become some of my favorite manuscript paper. I would learn later that this store-branded product is made by a German manufacturer called “STAR-notenschreibpapiere”, who makes a dizzying array of manuscript paper, pads, and hand-sewn notebooks. Can’t get it here in the U.S. (so far as I know), and it’s not easily ordered online.




The store actually has three locations, the other two just a few doors down. But being short on time (as usual) and with another stop to make before having to get back, I bought a few spiral bound notebooks and was off.


Among pen, pencil, and stationery fans the name Skripta-Paris is well known. This is my first trip to Paris after becoming acquainted with S-P, which occurred some time around 2008 via PencilTalk.org. For me it was the place to find items from the Graf von Faber-Castell collection, which were hard to find just about anywhere else. Their online inventory is expansive, making it all the more surprising to discover the store itself is quite small:


There are two aisles, small enough that were I to turn around wearing my back pack I’d likely wipeout an entire display. The shelves were tightly packed with items from, as you can see by the logos on the storefront, Graf von Faber-Castell, Lamy, Caran d’Ache, Lexon, and many more.

DSCF0038 DSCF0041 DSCF0048

Skripta-Paris is a must-see for stationery fans: I’m glad I got to see in person the store whose website I’ve spent countless hours poring over, despite having only scant minutes to do so.

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Pratteln Sneak-Thief

Be mindful of your french fries in Pratteln, Switzerland:




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When is Frutiger not Frutiger?


When it is (likely) Zurich Bold.

NB: It may ultimately be a logotype, since the top bar of the “F” is slightly altered.

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Frankfurt (2): Lexipuntalism

Perhaps the highlight of my time in Frankfurt though, was spending some time with Gunther from Lexikaliker.


I’ve been a fan of Lexikaliker since about 2008, and there’s hardly a blog out there that can compare with the care and attention to detail you’ll find there. Along with PencilTalk and Bleistift anything and everything I learned about pencils came from those three sites, and inspired me to do some blogging myself. The two hours or so we had to chat flew by very quickly, and meeting face-to-face was not only a great pleasure, it was also a great privilege for me (I only hope to remember at least half of the interesting things he shared with me tonight).

Highlights included seeing his fabled Janus sharpener in person (along with its custom leather pouch), and receiving a Hi-Uni Super-DX 8B pencil.

Vielen Dank an Gunther für einen wunderbaren Abend! 

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Frankfurt (1)

It was a little rainy and dreary in Frankfurt but with a day off and the Faber-Castell store only a half-mile’s walk from the hotel, some inclement weather wasn’t going to stop me.


Apparently this is one of the flagship stores so it carries just about their full line, including the Graf von Faber-Castell collection. Whether coincidence or not, it was not lost on me that the street this store is on is called Steinweg (Stein Way).

Downstairs is the high-end stuff, including the €10.000 Perfect Pencil:




There is a Graf von Faber-Castell premium color pencil set, with leather trim. And it can all be yours for just €310:


The 2014 Pen of the Year:


Upstairs is the Faber-Castell Collection, but first is this color palette in the stairwell:



There were some non F-C branded writing and coloring pads for sale:


It’s very nice (and tempting) to see all of these things together in one place; I left with my wallet feeling a little lighter.

Not to be outdone though was Noten4U, a local sheet-music store:

DSCF0081Upstairs there was a fine collection of scores and books on music, including a small selection of manuscript paper. Not very much though, however I’m hoping to alleviate that issue in a few days.


Downstairs was every musician’s dream basement: boxes and boxes overflowing with used scores and books on music:

DSCF0074In both of these places I felt a little self-conscious taking photos, even with the kind permission of the owners to do so. In any case, these photos didn’t turn out so well.

Hopefully more from Frankfurt in my next post.

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