Bibliophilia: Artisinal Pencil Sharpening

How to Sharpen Pencils
How to Sharpen Pencils

This week I’ve decided to use my two blogs on this site, Bibliophilia and Lucas’ Film Corner, to discuss the issue of irony in popular culture. Each post will be a sort-of response to Christy Wampole’s article How to live without Irony where I examine a piece of culture that seems ironic or plays with the idea of irony. If you have not read the article yet I’d recommend doing so before moving on to my response.

The most frequent question author David Rees gets asked about his new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants, is “is this a joke?” I should also mention that along with writing a book on the subject, pencil sharpening is something David Rees does for a living. On Rees’ website he offers his services as an expert sharpener. For a scant fifteen dollars (US) Rees will sharpen a pencil of your choice, ship it to you in a special container to preserve the sharpness, and enclose with it an autographed certificate of sharpness. So, the question again is “Is this a joke?”

Since the prevalence of the Dummies series of books satirical and ironic self-help or how-to books have been a common staple of humorous writing. Popular titles of the past and present include How to be Black, How to Live with a Huge Penis, and Lose Weight! Get Laid! Find God!: The All-in-One Life Planner. Some of these titles are written as one long joke and others are written as a criticism of this particular genre of writing yet I don’t believe that How to Sharpen Pencils really fits in either category. Rees’ book transcends the normal trappings of joke writing due to the fact that it’s largely not a joke.

On a recent episode of the interview based podcast How Was Your Week?  Julie Klausner sat down with Rees to discuss his book. When the eventual question of “how much of this is a joke?” came up Rees gave a sort of exasperated answer obviously being a little tired of defending his validity. Later on in the interview when Klausner brought up the common misconception that pencils were shaped like hexagons so that they wouldn’t roll off desks  Reese snapped into action describing how the pencil received it’s iconic shape through efforts to cut down on waste of wood. Hearing him get to dispense factoids about pencil manufacturing you get to see Rees sincere interests in pencils.

Yet beyond the pure enthusiasm Rees exudes, hearing how he found himself sharpening pencils is even more interesting. After the conclusion of his popular clip art comic Get Your War on and following a divorce from his wife Rees found himself broke and working for the US Census Bureau. Rees talks about how it was a time in his life when he felt lacking in an identity due to the two biggest aspects of his life, occupation and relationship, completely changing. Then one day during a training process he found a sense of nostalgia in sharpening pencils and had the idea “would it be great if sharpening pencils was my job.”

It’s easy to misread How to Sharpen Pencils as an exercise in irony. Basically anyone who can be trusted with a pointy stick knows how to sharpen pencils but Rees takes the subject matter to heart and really carries it to another level of practice. Rees take the task of sharpening pencils past pure utility and transforms it into an art.

So what do you think? Have you read David Rees book? Do you think his book is ironic or sincere? What mundane task would you love to turn into a career? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on irony, sincerity, and misconceptions about pencil manufacturing.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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