How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
by David Rees
Mr. David Rees was kind enough to send us a review copy of his new book through his publisher, and we were eager to devour and review it. Mr. Rees has been making waves in the pencil world since opening his Artisanal Pencil Sharpening business in 2010. Just as that venture is surely no joke, John Hodgman assures, us in his foreword to the book, that the volume in question is surely no joke either:
So yes: YOU WILL LEARN THE PROPER WAY TO SHARPEN A PENCIL in this book. No joke (Rees 10).
Certainly, it is possible to seriously deliver information to other people while at the same time being ironic and downright hilarious. Some of the best teachers I have had certainly knew this to be true. To suggest that the book cannot be “serious” and really “about” how to sharpen pencils just because it is presented…the way that it is really amounts to precluding “real” information from anything that is funny. Such would be a sad world indeed. Boring, at least. In this case, the humor in Mr. Rees’ book functions as the proverbial “spoonful of sugar” – because, let’s face it: no matter how much we like pencils, an entire book based on the proper way[s] to sharpen them would likely wind up being moderately mind-numbing to a lot of people, even Comrades.
The question that most Comrades probably want answered about this book is: Will I learn something about sharpening pencils that I did not already know? Well, if not, then you probably have a lot to teach us, and I invite you to Charm City to do so. While some suggestions (like cleaning a burr sharpener with a toothbrush) might seem silly at first, I suspect this initial hint of the ridiculous comes from the strangeness of being overly fond of (ahem, obsessed with) pencils in the first place, so that we find ourselves seeking the best way to put points onto them. Personally, I am Okay with this outlook (and a toothbrush works great the clean The Machine on my bookshelf). Again, for myself, I learned a better way to approach sharpening a pencil with a knife, to be sure, and I will never again wonder how to use a wall-mounted sharpener that is higher than my merely average height can reach.
Of course, there are chapters one could view as humorous, such as the directions on the proper way to “use” an electric pencil sharpener, humor I cannot render justly in this review. Suffice it to say that it involves breaking and entering and a succession of hammers. Mr. Rees’ sense of irony and humor still suffuse the entire book.
Still, being trained in [academic] philosophy*, I find myself wondering what could be beneath the surface of this book, even if it is really “about” sharpening pencils. Mr. Thoreau’s Walden, for example, certainly admits to many different readings, beneath instruction and accounting. One such reading I have come to prefer of Mr. Rees’ book is that of being subtly critical of our era of mechanization and…globally sourced products.
In a footnote on page 29, Mr. Rees comments that “Made in USA” is a mark of a quality pencil. When one considers how rare American-made pencils are these days, this comment seems to imply that quality pencils are becoming rare in the United States in general. No matter how much darker and smoother the new Chines Dixons are (I find the Mexican versions scratchy, light and all but worthless), they are not really Dixons to me. The pencil’s “Americanness” was such a part of its identity – which might also mean its quality – that I can’t look at the current Dixons I have around the same way as I could six years ago, not without forcing myself to ignore their “story.”
Mr. Rees also comes out and criticizes our era outright. He writes:
This is not to say that we should take imperfection as our goal. One of the dysfunctions of our age is the conflation of shoddiness with authenticity, and we must resist this confusion in our practice – especially in those circumstances where sloppy craftsmanship could diminish a pencil’s utility (Rees 52).
But perhaps we can best see Mr. Rees’ criticism of modern culture in Chapter 13: How to Use an Electric Pencil Sharpener. He lists ways in which a troubadour-esque Artisanal Pencil Sharpener might identify a home in which an electric sharpener resides. Two of the criteria are: “Closely mowed lawn indicates a preoccupation with orderliness, and yet…Disorderly porch indicates limited free time” (Rees 132). A home containing an electric pencil sharpener is inhabited by individuals who want order but who do not have time for it. Whether the lack of time is from over-employment (from a recession in which more than one job is necessary or from a habit of spending too much time earning money to buy materials and services which one does not need) or badly invested energies and attention, this seems to be a symptom of our age. We want order/peace/etc. but do not go after this with what would amount to any serious vigor.
I might venture so far as to claim that a lot of the attention which Mr. Rees has received as a result of his business and his book proves him largely correct about our culture. We are not a people who enjoy craftsmanship in itself – at least not enough to actually pay for it. Comrades can witness the retreat of American pencil manufacturing in the name of profit and/or “lower prices!” to see the value which our society places on quality work – even when rejecting it means that the company for which our own Norman Rockwell painted ads moves production out of the USA. And, with the trend in “artisanal” stuff and services and foods, we see that we are seldom even willing to pay for craftsmanship – when we do – for its own sake. Rather, we pay a premium for artisanal coffees and foot scrubs because of a fad. Do we do this to assuage our consumer guilt because our hand-crafted breadbox is full of corn-fructosed breadstuffs from a discount store? Are we really connecting with craftspeople or our past/roots? Are we merely displaying our goodness for all to see when we buy hand-roasted spices? To be sure, there are those whose sincerity might match that of Mr. Rees. But I think a lot of people are paying attention because this is a person who truly takes craftsmanship seriously.
In any case, I can think of several reasons that I enjoyed this book and why I would heartily recommend it to Comrades everywhere. Stepping down from my accidental trip to the soapbox: This book is really a must-read for anyone interested in pencils. And there are well-placed lines likely to render you, as I was, doubled over in laughter. But what I enjoyed most about Mr. Rees’ book was reading something written with such sincerity by a person who obviously does what he does with care. His carefulness spreads onto the pages and leaves me regretful that I am not really careful enough about anything to write a whole book about it.
* Edit: I realize now how pretentious this probably sounds. My academic background is usually just the excuse I give for not having [m]any “skills.”