A political cartoonist discovers that the pencil is mightier than, well, anything
“How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening” (Melville House, $19.95), by David Rees, is not your average book about pencil sharpening. In this digital-desktop age, it’s a keenly rigorous plea for the sanctity of a soon-to-be-forgotten skill. Rees, a veteran political cartoonist and “the number one #2 pencil sharpener,” has penned (or, rather, penciled) a survey of the art and science of getting to the point. I caught up with him over e-mail while he was in the middle of a marathon sharpening session. You are the only person I know who could make an entire book about pencil sharpening.
When Melville House approached me about doing a book, it took me a few weeks to figure out how to structure it. Once I decided to build the text around different sharpening techniques, I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to write enough. In the end, though, we had to cut almost 50 pages from the final manuscript. I love writing about pencil sharpening!
One of the more difficult aspects of sharpening is the little plastic pencil-case sharpeners. It is easy to break the point. And speaking of points, what is the genesis of this idea?
You are referring, of course, to the tyranny of the irregular pin tip, a common complication associated with suboptimal deployment of a single-blade pocket sharpener. This is covered in chapter five of my book, as are other problems like the irregular collar bottom, the “headless horseman,” and the off-axis graphite core. As to the genesis of this project: I rediscovered my love of sharpening pencils while working for the U.S. Census Bureau in the spring of 2010. Our first day of training involved sharpening pencils with a U.S. government–issued pocket sharpener. I decided then and there that I was going to figure out how to get paid to sharpen pencils. I’m happy to report that I have now made more money sharpening pencils than I made working for the census.
You’re truly on to something. The other day I was trying to figure out what to do with my Dixon Ticonderoga no. 2. What is it you want to say to your audience?
In this era of iPads and digital styluses, I want to remind my readers that the humble pencil remains an astonishingly efficient and elegant mark-making device, and it behooves us to sharpen pencils as well as we can. I leave it to others to decide whether the entire book is an extended metaphor for living your life as well as you can in the face of frustration and heartbreak. I can scarcely believe I’m capable of such a grandiose meta-textual coup, but I just might be.
I foresee a run on stationery stores once this book is published. Are you prepared to help get the lead out?
This is an unforgivable pun, and it is only thanks to my professional discipline that I will continue to answer your questions rather than throw my computer out the window in a blind rage.
I see you’ve been experimenting with the position of wall-mounted sharpeners. Do you advise any particular height?
Although wall-mounted sharpeners are usually positioned such that the average user may access the device while standing, urban explorers may encounter sharpeners outside the typical “strike zone.” My book describes three options for using a wall-mounted sharpener located within two feet of the floor; it also describes how to properly deploy a stepladder in order to enjoy a sharpener located within two feet of the ceiling. (I don’t mind admitting that I almost fell from a great height during the photo shoot for the latter strategy. Such are the risks associated with “extreme pencil-pointing.”)
This book does for writers, artists, contractors, flange turners, anglesmiths, and civil servants what “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” did for flange turners and anglesmiths. Since your other books were rooted in current politics, do you have any guilt or remorse in doing a book that is simply about pencils?
I spent seven years as a left-wing political cartoonist, keeping abreast of the latest atrocities and tragedies associated with the global war on terrorism. It was at turns exhilarating and enervating. I turned to sharpening pencils as a respite, and it pleased me to write a book with exactly zero partisan subtext. It is my hope that Red America and Blue America can come together as Yellow America, both sides lending their voices to the chorus of praise due the classic yellow no. 2 pencil (and, by extension, ME).
With the election season coming, are you totally fixated on pencils, or does political cartooning still have a place in your case?
I’ve started making cartoons for Rolling Stone again. “Get Your Vote On” will run until Election Day.
I understand (in fact, you told me) that you want to do stand-up comedy. Does this book get you closer to the microphone?
Alas, no. This book pushes me away from stand-up comedy with great force and extreme prejudice. Sharpening pencils requires a steady hand and a clear eye, two qualities sorely lacking in the typical comedian—a specimen whose job preparation usually involves ingesting alcohol and cocaine with coequal ferocity, thereby compromising fine-motor skills. (One shudders to think of the pencil points conjured by a Sam Kinison or an Andrew “Dice” Clay; the term “beaver-savaged breadsticks” comes to mind.) With this book I turn my back on the prospect of amusing an audience and embrace the humorless passions of the artisanal craftsman.
Search as I might, I could not find anything on that other pencil scourge, broken (or chewed-off) erasers. Do you have a solution?
I’m afraid I can’t help you, as I have no interest in erasers.
More Related Stories
- Man arrested for sending Craigslist sex party to neighbor's house
- Greek yogurt, toxic waste hazard?
- Glenn Beck: CNN interview with atheist tornado survivor was a setup!
- Incoming BBC news director on journalism gender gap: "We can do better"
- Illegal construction, shoddy materials at fault in Bangladesh factory disaster
- Pope Francis: Atheists are all right!
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- Is recreational pot use safe?
- How I ended up in a pyramid scheme
- My bipolar partner beat me
- Teenagers care more about online privacy than you think
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- Kicked out of the mall -- for an anti-cancer hat
- Why do men pretend to be women online?
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- Conservative group blames military sexual assault on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal
- Is Pittsburgh the next Portland?
- Tornado survivor to Wolf Blitzer: Sorry, I'm an atheist. I don't have to thank the Lord
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Salon is proud to feature content from Imprint, the fastest-growing design community on the web. Brought to you by Print magazine, America's oldest and most trusted design voice, Imprint features some of the biggest names in the industry covering visual culture from every angle. Imprint
advances and expands the design conversation, providing fresh daily content to the community (and now to salon.com!), sparking conversation, competition, criticism, and passion among its members.