Apr/May 2012

Point-Counterpoint

Peter Arkle


I know how to sharpen pencils. I shove them into the electric pencil sharpener suction-cupped onto a corner of my desk. It growls so satisfyingly and provides a kind of smoke break for a nonsmoker—a perfect bit of procrastination. Some days I am committed to sharpening every pencil I can find before starting work—even though I do most of my work with a fountain pen.

Anyway, this book has a great title. Surely, though, the name—to say nothing of the wider project of artisanal pencil sharpening—is some kind of a metaphor. Is this a self-help guide about learning to live life more simply or calmly—like that Zen proverb about chopping wood and carrying water? No. This really is a book—a whole book—about sharpening pencils. The work delivers on exactly what the subtitle promises, no irony: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening.

But this must be a joke, right? Who even uses pencils these days? Among those who do, who needs advice on their care and maintenance? Well, it looks like a lot of famous people do: This book has testimonials from the likes of Spike Jonze, Amy Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, and a third-grader called Bess—“Thank you for the artisanally sharpened pencils David Rees. They look very phenomenal. They were so sharp.”

So, the author, David Rees—best known for the scathing Bush-era clip-art series Get Your War On—actually sharpens pencils for people. Hard-pressed to continue as a cartoonist and illustrator, he now makes money doing this (charging fifteen dollars per sharpening session). You can visit artisanalpencilsharpening.com and order a freshly sharpened pencil. Each one comes with a certificate of authenticity. “No, this is not a joke. You pay David Rees money and he sharpens your pencils. It actually happens,” says the “About” section of the website. “Just because something makes you smile or laugh . . . doesn’t mean it’s a joke,” says another quote. So Rees-sharpened pencils are Art. You don’t use these pencils; you exhibit them. If you look at them the way one is expected to look at, say, a Jeff Koons vacuum cleaner, then I suppose fifteen dollars is quite reasonable for a piece of found-object art—or, more precisely, refined-object art.

As Rees had the time to write this book, pencil sharpening clearly doesn’t fill all of his days. But he sure did spend a lot of time thinking about the act: He catalogues and dissects the whole range of sharpening tools to get the job done, from the humble pocketknife to the double-burr hand-crank sharpener. He offers an appendix of “Wines That Taste Like Pencils.” (I am not familiar with any of the wines he listed, so I cannot dispute his selections.) He dedicates a whole chapter to venting his hatred of electric pencil sharpeners: “Tighten your safety goggles, raise the mallet over your head, and bring it down on the body of the electric sharpener with maximum force.” Even though I remain partial to my own electric sharpener, this chapter made me laugh out loud (once), as did the photo of Rees standing in a waterfall in Jamaica while sharpening a pencil. I wasn’t so much laughing at the idea, but at the way he is clearly struggling to maintain his ever-so-serious artisanal expression in one of the more unlikely settings imaginable for a pencil-sharpening session.

He is a bit funny at times (then again, if I said he wasn’t, he would probably say he wasn’t trying to be funny). But the joke or nonjoke or whatever it is gets pretty tiresome after two-hundred-plus pages. Still, as a sheer feat of writerly endurance, How to Sharpen Pencils is impressive. Rees reminds me of Nicholson Baker (a writer who is very good at keeping going on a subject, regardless of how mundane it might seem); I never clip my nails without thinking of his essay about that subject in his 1997 collection, The Size of Thoughts. And it’s undeniably pleasurable, and at least a little edifying, to be made to seriously consider humble everyday objects and acts that we normally take for granted. The problem is that I think there really is not much to say about pencil sharpening, and certainly not really enough to fill a book––even when you add a few jokes. Rees’s premise is a wee bit entertaining, but when it’s executed so laboriously, it ends up feeling like too much effort.

Rees has obviously read Henry Petroski’s 1990 book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I was always fascinated by the idea of this whole book (at more than four hundred pages, twice the length of Rees’s) devoted to nothing but pencils. Petroski, a professor of engineering and history, said just about everything there was to say about how pencils work, how they were invented, and the ways in which their design has evolved—producing a study that was very serious yet also absurdly detailed. But Petroski’s book turned out to be the first in a long, and increasingly tedious, line of books about simple everyday things: Salt, Potatoes, Water, Ink, etc. If this book about sharpening pencils is going to be the start of a new publishing trend, I want it to stop right now. I do not want to read How to Clean Your Teeth or How to Make a Cup of Tea.

In short, I don’t really see the point of this book about points. I think Rees’s website and pencil-sharpening business are funnier—and, in all likelihood, will turn out to be more profitable—than How to Sharpen Pencils. But I won’t go on, lest this prose excursion also turn into a meta-book project—an extended anatomy of this title’s pros and cons, called, perhaps, How to Think About a Book About Sharpening Pencils. Instead, gentle reader, I’ll just note that for the twenty dollars you might spend on How to Sharpen Pencils, you can get a case or so of pencils for yourself, and sharpen away.

Peter Arkle is a freelance illustrator. He is currently working on a series of drawings that will appear on limited-edition single-malt-whiskey bottles.

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