In praise of the humble products all around us

7th January, 2021

Tom Kelley is a sensitive soul. Shortly after sending the manuscript of his first book, The Art of Innovation, to his publisher, he visited Kepler’s, his local bookshop in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. “I literally started to cry,” he confessed to a group of authors to which I belong, “thinking about all the effort and all the sacrifices authors had made to get those thousands of books on to the stage.”

I see you, Tom. I vividly remember my excitement the first time I saw one of my books in the wild, in Kramerbooks, in Washington DC. Eight books later, I can attest that writing and publishing one is still as exciting — and still as exhausting. Thinking of all my fellow authors going through the same thing is rather moving; that bookshops keep being shut down by the pandemic simply adds to the pathos.

But books are not the only products that should make us pause in awe and gratitude. What about the humble pencil? In a famous 1958 essay, “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E Read”, Read’s pencil-narrator acknowledges that it is easily overlooked.

“Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye — there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.”

Read’s pencil is a proselytising free-market fan and explains that it has an impressive pedigree: its graphite is from Ceylon, mixed with Mississippi clay, sulphuric acid and animal fats. Its cedar wood grew naturally but harvesting the timber required saws, axes, motors, rope and a railway car.

The pencil — if you let it — will talk your ears off on the subject of its six coats of lacquer, or the origin of the brass in its ferrule, or the eraser on its tip. (Shockingly, the pencil even reveals how the graphite gets into the middle of the wood. I will not spoil that for you; econo-magicians must keep their secrets.)

These products are produced by people we never meet, at a price so low — relative to our wages — that our ancestors would be staggered A modern variation on the pencil’s family tree comes courtesy of Thomas Thwaites, an artist and designer whose “Toaster Project” was an attempt to design and build an ordinary toaster, beginning with assembling his own raw materials — quarrying mica, refining plastic, smelting steel.

“You could easily spend your life making a toaster,” he told me when I interviewed him about the project more than a decade ago. And indeed he took various short-cuts. Nevertheless, his finished toaster cost about £1,000 and required several months of work. It looked like a cake iced by a three-year-old, and when plugged into the mains it immediately caught fire.

A budget shop-bought toaster does not catch fire and costs less than a hardback book. It is unlikely to move anyone to tears, yet the people who mine metals, refine plastics, generate our electricity and design safe electrical appliances no doubt work at least as hard as any author. The results are so cheap and reliable we overlook them. Indeed, we are surrounded by products we barely understand, produced by people we never meet, often at a quality so high and a price so low — relative to our wages — that our ancestors would be staggered.

No one person has a complete view of the production process or co-ordinates it from the moment the cedar tree sprouts to the moment the barcode on the box of pencils is scanned at the checkout.

“No one sitting in a central office gave orders,” explained Milton Friedman, the free-market evangelist and Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist who helped make Read’s pencil essay famous. The laissez-faire implications of all this decentralised complexity were obvious to Friedman, and the pencil itself put it best: “Leave all creative energies uninhibited . . . Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.”

I have sympathy with that conclusion but it does not follow as a matter of logic. The pencil’s family tree includes government-granted patents, government-owned railways and a large industrial conglomerate. Orders from central offices are definitely given.

And a left-winger might instead be prompted by the pencil’s story to lament our alienation from the objects that surround us. We read books, make toast, sketch with pencils and yet we have no real idea how, where or by whom even these simple objects were made — let alone about every stage of something more complex such as a car, a computer or an mRNA vaccine. Simple, local, handcrafted products have an undeniable emotional appeal, though life would not necessarily be better if we all had to whittle our own pencils.

Leaving to one side the debate over economic ideology, I applaud Kelley’s appreciation of the effort and creativity, often from people unknown, that went into the products that surrounded him.

AJ Jacobs, in his book Thanks a Thousand, gracefully underscored this point. He decided to thank, in person or on the phone, everyone involved in making his morning coffee, from the barista to the pest-control expert at the warehouse, the lid designer to the workers at the reservoir that supplied the water — about a thousand people in all.

At a time when the pandemic has caused some very visible wounds to workers we see every day, it has been astonishing how many people have been able to keep working productively. Books are still being published; pencils are still being made; I bought a new toaster just a few weeks ago. Tears or no tears, I am trying to notice the contribution both of those who are no longer able to work and of those who are.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 December 2020.

My new book, “The Data Detective” is published in the US/Canada on 2nd February. “Nobody makes the statistics of everyday life more fascinating and enjoyable than Tim Harford.” – Bill Bryson

“This entertaining, engrossing book about the power of numbers, logic and genuine curiosity”- Maria Konnikova

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom – have a look and see all my recommendations; Bookshop is set up to support local independent retailers.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This