May 24, 2012

BOOKS: How to Sharpen Pencils, David Rees (2012)

David Rees is best known for his clip-art comic Get Your War On. But when he's not busy cut-and-pasting, he has a sideline business as an artisanal pencil sharpener. This is not a joke; send him a #2 pencil and $12.50, and he will personally sharpen your pencil and return it to you. That makes him the obvious choice to write the much-needed manual How to Sharpen Pencils, which is precisely as its subtitle advertises, "A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening."

Now, you might think that pencil sharpening is a trivial topic, requiring no more than a brief pamphlet to cover in depth. But O, my friend, you would be wrong! Rees's manual is roughly 200 pages long, and every page is filled with valuable information. There are chapters devoted to the many methods of sharpening --pocketknife, pocket sharpener, hand-crank sharpeners (both single and double burr), electric sharpener (this chapter is particularly entertaining). Rees also covers important ancillary topics, with chapters on mechanical pencils, the psychology of pencil sharpening, and sharpening for children. From the psychology chapter comes this useful tip on "the live pencil-sharpening experience":
Any professional pencil sharpener worth his or her salt will have road stories about hecklers and unforgiving customers who seem incapable of accepting that every pencil is different, and some will carry scooped collars or other irregularities to their grave. We must not be discouraged by obnoxious reactions to our craft; instead, record any wounding taunts or sarcastic remarks in your log along with a physical description of their authors. Then commission a comedian or bartender to compose witty responses and mail them to the offending party.

Rees has given us a book that is simultaneously the practical how-to guide it claims to be -- you really will learn all you need to know about pencil sharpening -- and an extraordinary parody of such guides. It's a masterful study in tone, 200 pages of impeccably controlled straight-faced strangeness, growing ever more absurd so gradually you barely notice it, until you're more than ready for a final chapter on "How to Sharpen a Pencil With Your Mind."

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