New Largest US Library.

This is pretty cool and seems to warrant a trip to the Lone Star State, where I haven’t been in 11 years.

“There are thousands of abandoned big box stores sitting empty all over America, including hundreds of former Walmart stores. With each store taking up enough space for 2.5 football fields, Walmart’s use of more than 698 million square feet of land in the U.S. is one of its biggest environmental impacts. But at least one of those buildings has been transformed into something arguably much more useful: the nation’s largest library.”

Read more!

Wheel of Information at the Pratt, in Baltimore.

This is not especially pencil-related, but it is written by frequent Pencil Revolution contributor Brian Manning, who works at the central brand of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore City. Folks calling the library Telephone Reference Service get their answers via paper books, contained on a custom-built device designed to make finding books faster and easier.

Call the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Telephone Reference Service (TRS) with a question—ranging from the correct spelling of “insurrection,” to what the heck is in scrapple?—and librarians are waiting to answer your questions using both computers and books.  But while computers are prone to their glitches, fusses, and viruses, there is a tried-and-true partner for these information detectives that is spinning into its 45th year of operation: the information Wheel (a.k.a. “information carousel,” or “Lazy Susan”).

Despite the proliferation of computers in society in general and libraries in particular, computers cannot replaces the Information Wheel, “which is still a necessity in this modern age because the internet does not have a reputable answer for every question.”

We’re not making this up! Comrades can call 410-396-5430 to have their questions answered. Of course, let’s not jam up the lines and time of the hard-working folks at Charm City’s main library.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Book Review: How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees, Artisanal Pencil Sharpener.

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
Melville House
224 pages

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.”

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.

(I feel less and less like this blog has to remain entirely about pencils all of the time, and I suspect that Comrades might enjoy this book very much.)

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).

So when I was browsing at Normal’s — my favorite bookstore in Baltimore —  and came across Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, I was excited. I soon discovered that this book is, truly, a delight.

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.]

RIP, The Wild Rumpus.

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.

(Image, WP.)

“Leave the Libaries Alone.”

Being of the last generation to need to visit a library while in school in order to get information and to do research, I have a serious soft-spot for libraries. I retain very fine memories of studying Edmund Husserl, Thomistic metaphysics and William James during December 2002 (when I probably no longer needed to actually be in the library) in Bapst Library at Boston College and truly being invigorated as much by the stacks and smells and architecture of the large study hall as I was by the copious amounts of coffee I’d been consuming.  Not to mention that the public nature of the library and the enforced silence was very good for keeping me undistracted.  I took notes in a Space Pen, in hardcover notebooks, using paper books written by and about what I was studying.  I didn’t think that such a method of work would be so seriously endangered only 8 years later.  I can’t decide if physical libraries are a case of holding fast to something we know and love for it’s own sake or if there’s really something about them that can justify us keeping them around longer.  For what it’s worth, my local library just received an expensive and extensive remodeling, in a city that’s so strapped for cash that fire houses close on a rolling basis.

Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech…

“In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public…
Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him…
So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit…

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs…

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.” (More.)

There are some interesting comments on Boing Boing, where I found this link, including the suggestion (for better or worse) that libraries get replaced by something else or nothing.

[Image of Morris Library at SIUC, summer 2005, before complete renovations.]

Why Pencils (iii): From Petroski.

From everyone’s favorite pencil tome, The Pencil (by Professor Petroski).  Pencils are:

“…a metaphorical bridge that can carry from mind to paper the lines of a daring real bridge, which can cause jaws to drop, or the words of a daring new philosophy, which can cause eyebrows to arch.”

Please see also, from the archives:
Why Pencils? (i)
Why Pencils? (ii)