From Flavorwire, teenaged photos of famous authors, featuring, Papa Hemingway. For your Midweek Enjoyment.
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.”
“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.”
Jack London, “Getting into Print,” 1903, via The Art of Manliness.
In another possibly Shameless Plug for my hometown and the location of Pencil Revolution HQ, I have to mention the excellent Poe Collection at the Pratt in Baltimore. The collection includes letters, art, and artifacts. Baltimore itself is a bastion Poe-dom. We have Poe’s body, interred at Westminister Hall and Burying Ground. As such, the Poe Toaster also visited our fair city annually. The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum is in Baltimore, not far from Poe’s final resting place. Of course, we also have the most literary-ily named NFL team: The Baltimore Ravens.
For more…information (or, a fictional view which presents some new historical facts) about Mr. Poe’s death, Comrades are urged to read Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, which depicts mid-19th century Baltimore in a unique light, especially for natives of Charm City.
Finally, the recent film, The Raven, which was widely panned by critics, is actually a fun film, even if not filmed in Baltimore. If nothing else, James McTeigue‘s direction (as in V for Vendetta) was excellent.
Harvard University is hosting an exploration of note-taking called TAKE NOTE. Comrades can view the exhibits online, if you are too far from Cambridge to see them in person. One of the exhibits features the Brazil notebook of one of my very favorite philosophers, William James, and Thoreau’s pencils are also on display. This exhibit and conference are among the myriad reasons I wish I could visit my home (Massachusetts) of two years this autumn.
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…global 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.”
My favorite part of The Walters Are Museum in Baltimore, Maryland is generally The Chamber of Wonders. I like to think that my own education in philosophy hasn’t stripped all of the wonder out of my brain and heart, and that particular room always renders me wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Each visit is like I’ve never seen anything there before (except the bear skull; I never forget the bear skull).
A finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this volume begins with The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles and Mr. Wilson. I don’t want to give the entire story away, but the verity of the museum’s contents and the claims of the director seem true, then untrue, then completely and absolutely certain. The author, Lawrence Weschler, dives into the claims and exhibits and shares the story.
The curator and founder of the museum, David Hildebrand Wilson, is as fascinating as his museum. Formerly a skilled video artist and technicalist, he brings to LA a museum that harkens to the institutions’ harbingers, in the collections of curious individuals of a bygone age. The book’s second part details the history of such collections and their role in giving us the modern, positivist museum.
Mr. Wilson was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2001, a few years after the publication of the book. While the book was being written, the museum was in substantial financial trouble (or on the cusp of it); so this is good news. I was reading and wondering if I’d ever get to visit the museum in person, especially since I don’t exactly drop into LA on a regular basis.
For now, I have to satisfy myself with our own chamber in Baltimore. Our daughter Charlotte visited the Chamber of Wonder at The Walters last year when we went downtown for festivities related to El Día de los Muertos, when she was not quite crawling. Now, Charlotte can wonder on her own legs and explore for herself — both the exhibits of the museum and the wonders of the world.
[This post originally appeared, in different form and with a different image, on the Baltimore Book Blog by the author.]
Maurice Sendak, author of such “dark” classics as Where the Wild Things Are, passed away. One of the most memorable books of my own childhood and (likely, since we read it so much) my daughter’s, is Where the Wild Things Are, a story of energy and anger and the potentially dark forces within frustrated people. Fantasies are always better than punching a hole in the wall, or punching your mom.
While many a bad film has prevented at least some folks I know from reading great books (e.g., The Perfect Storm, whose movie was just, well, wow, terrible), the semi-recent film was particularly enjoyable. I won’t blather on about how it expanded on some of the psychological self-exploration of the book. But I will say that both I and my daughter enjoyed it. And she is particularly enamored of the soundtrack, featuring one of her favorite songs, “All Is Love.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Sendak.
It’s no secret that John Steinbeck was one serious pencil user. Still, reading East of Eden recently, I found this passage about writing letters in pencil remarkable:
Tom opened the drawer and saw a table of Crane’s Linen Lawn and a package of envelopes to match and two gnawed and crippled pencils and in the dust[y]* corner at the back a few stamps. He laid out the tablet and sharpened the pencils with his pocketknife. 
There are several detailed pencil references, but another sticks out:
The writing stopped there. There was a scratch on the page and a splash of ink, and then it went on in pencil, but the writing was different. In pencil it said, “Later. Well, right there the pen give out. One of the points broke right off… “[34-5]
*(My centennial edition has quite a few typos, and I assume that’s one, too. Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.)
1) Thoreau made pencils.
2) Some of these surveys still have pencil marks on them. And who doesn’t enjoy a good chart of a woodlot?
3) Why not?
[Image, P. Used with permission.]
R. Buckminster Fuller is famous the world over for his geodesic dome designs and for his unrelenting questioning that makes him sound more like a philosopher than anything else. When he summed up his search for what one might call “truth,” he uses the metaphor of the pencil.
“Buckminster Fuller never gave up his searh to find ‘Nature’s pencil.’ Like so many geniuses, he was constantly searching for the essence of how things worked best. And when he found such solutions in Nature, he applied them to his projects. Thus, we have his most famous invention – the geodesic dome – modeled after structures found in Nature.
Still, the question continues to be in the quest. Fuller and many others constantly seek the next evolution of ideas, and the really cleaver people always look to Nature first. Were all humans to do that, we would realize that there are enough resources to go around, and what we need to do is be very careful in using exactly enough. Not too much and not too little.
Nature’s pencil is such a sustainable model. She writes and draws with a precision and exactness that humans have difficulty understanding or modeling. Still, people like Bucky and many of today’s great minds continue to search because they know that the search is as important as reaching the goal.” (More.)
This resonates with me, personally, since one of my grad schools was where Professor Fuller taught and worked from 1959 to 1970. He’s still a legend around those parts.