David Rees’ 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 a 144-page essay on, erm, sharpening pencils. Or at least that’s what its ostensible content is about.
We came across this book via Boing Boing and have so far read only this chapter, but it is already apparent that Rees’ work is a mixture of conscientious fastidiousness, philosophical excursion and probably, as Cory Doctorow writes at Boing Boing, satire.
Thus Rees pays genuine and caring attention to the functional minutiae of sharpening a U.S. No. 2 pencil. (The American numbered pencil classification is different from the ‘HB’ system employed elsewhere.) He’s done his research and is mindful of logistical pitfalls:
“The hexagonal shaft of the pencil must be straight, as bowing can lead to ‘shudder’ in hand-crank sharpeners and irregular collars produced by pocket sharpeners.”
But poetic and existentialist tendrils sprout from the didactic and explicatory task at hand:
“Remember: A pencil point enjoyed by the writer may not be suited for the draftsman; the ideal point for the standardized-test taker laboring in an over-lit classroom may not please the louche poet idling on a windswept peak. No point can serve all needs. The unsharpened pencil is, in contrast, an idealized form. Putting a point on a pencil — making it functional — is to lead it out of Plato’s cave and into the noonday sun of utility. Of course, life outside a cave runs the risk of imperfection and frustration. But we must learn to live with these risks if we want enough oxygen to survive.”
The later chapter titles promise an intriguing mix of accuracy beyond the call of duty and farce and we can’t wait to read, ‘Using a Double-Burr Hand-Crank Sharpener’, ‘Decapitating a Pencil Point: Radical Treatment in the Service of a Greater Good’ and ‘A Few [ascerbic, we hope] Words about Mechanical Pencils.’