1. Bear with me for a moment on this first one...there is pencil content, I swear!
If you've never read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I would like to highly recommend it. It is so wonderfully, richly written. The characters are heartbreakingly real in all their hopes and all their flaws, moments of beauty and joy, shattered dreams and struggles. It feels almost like a very vivid biography rather than a novel...and to a great extent, I suspect it to be just that in disguise.
It takes place in the few decades of the 1900s, and the primary character is Francie Nolan, an intelligent, sensitive, imaginative little girl growing up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. Her imagination is a blessing and a curse to her: there's one particularly poignant scene in the first part of the book where she and her brother are waiting in line with other poor people to buy stale bread from the bakery--loads are brought back from the local stores and sold at a cut rate price, first come, first served. As they're waiting, she observes a group of old men sitting in the back, enjoying the warmth for awhile before joining the line fighting for the bread. She focuses on one man in particular, dirty and shabby and with holes in his shoes and ugly, thick-nailed toes peeking out, and thinks about the fact that once upon a time, he must have been a sweet little baby with little pink toes that his mother loved to kiss. Once he was a young man, and went courting. And so on. She imagines his whole life...and then the current moment barrels down on her, the way he is now, the seemingly inescapable result of poverty--and she suddenly feels that if she doesn't get away immediately, she will find herself instantly changed in the same way. She is thrown into such a panic that she has to rush out of the room.
More than anything, she wants to learn; she wants to know. She can't wait to go to school, to meet other children, to be given knowledge. There is pencil content here, too:
Most of all, she wanted "school supplies": a notebook and tablet and a pencil box with a sliding top filled with new pencils, and eraser, a little tin pencil sharpener made in the shape of a cannon, a pen wiper and a six-inch, soft-wood, yellow ruler.I'm intrigued by the pencil sharpener in particular. I wonder, were tin novelty sharpeners common right then, or was this a fond childhood memory on the author's part?
But there's no actual mention of her getting such a thing right then, and when she gets to school she is unable to make friends, has to share a desk meant for one person with another student, and is treated with contempt by most of her teachers because of her impoverished background. The students are given a single pencil to use during the day, which is taken back from them after use:
She accepted with pride the pencil the monitor passed out to her in the morning and reluctantly surrendered it to another monitor at three o'clock.If that doesn't make you appreciate the modern world and the relative wealth we all possess...!
OK, so the pencil content isn't a reason in and of itself to read this book...but it does make me smile.
2. More on-topic, the next library book on my to-be-read pile is Henry Petroski's work, The Pencil. It contains a full and detailed history of pencils, and the men whose names now grace so many of our favorites--Dixon, for example, and Eberhard Faber, and Faber-Castell. It explains mysteries such as why (in the US, at least) most pencils are yellow. From what I can tell in flipping through it, it gets a little technical in places (lots of detail on the development of lead composition, for example, and the mechanisms in early mechanical pencils), but nonetheless it appears to be a must-read for any lovers of writing instruments. I'm looking forward to it.
As a final note, I just got my hands on some General's Semi-Hex pencils. I look forward to playing with them over the next little bit. Woo-hoo!