Book Review: 'How to Sharpen Pencils'

Photograph by Kutay Tanir/Getty Images

Is How to Sharpen Pencils a joke? Well, was it a joke when, in the summer of 2011, Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers Chocolate announced it would be getting its coming year’s supply of cocoa (20 tons’ worth) delivered by three-masted schooner? It costs $8 for a bar of Mast Brothers chocolate. Although there is a store and website and there were published pictures of the schooner arriving in Red Hook, it does feel a bit like it might have been a joke. The home page shows two brothers in beards who appear to be perfect parodies of the Williamsburg mode. Was it a joke when, in 2008, an Austrian group announced they would be reopening the Polaroid film factory in the Netherlands? A pack of the film, which can produce eight pictures—after just a few minutes of waving each around frantically—costs $23.49. This might have been a joke, too, but maybe not, given the strange needs of art. So it was maybe only partly a joke when, in the fall of 2010, David Rees, who lives in Beacon, N.Y., opened a business sharpening pencils for customers. Send $15 to Rees and he will sharpen any pencil by hand, slip it into a protective tube with a certificate of authenticity, and return it, along with the shavings. He wears a smock and safety glasses, and never, ever uses an electric pencil sharpener. He likes the old ways.

Rees claims to have had about 500 customers over the life of the business, which is not too bad considering the economics of the concern. Pencils cost about $3 a dozen. A hand sharpener is about $1.50. This is something like a [(500 x $15)/($125 for pencils + $1.50 for sharpening + $500 shipping)] 1,200 percent return on capital. There are also lecture fees, and Rees has a busy touring schedule.

As might be expected in a 218-page book on properly sharpening pencils, it is precise. There are eight pages on warming up for a proper sharpening. There is advice on what kind of smock to buy. There is a careful examination of multiple-hole pencil sharpeners; these can do terrible things to pencils if you put the wrong pencil in the wrong hole. There is a long chapter on how to sneak into someone’s house and smash their electric pencil sharpener with a mallet.

Rees spends four pages on “Using a Wall-Mounted Hand-Crank Pencil Sharpener.” This section handles only wall-mounted hand-crank sharpeners that have been mounted properly. Detailed instructions are provided for sharpeners mounted near the floor, or ceiling. Deep in all this foolish minutia is a payoff, akin to the reward one gets from shipped-by-sail chocolate or receiving a note via first-class mail. Here is Rees on the hand-crank:

Step Six: Calibrating Your Emotional Radar

As you begin sharpening the pencil, be on the lookout for the reintroduction of any sensations you had forgotten in the years since elementary school: the slight vibratory shudder of the pencil as it makes its way further into the blades; the steady, raspy exhalation of steel and cedar as the blades rotate around the pencil to shape it; the sudden flooding memories of childhood optimism that saw the future as a sunny unfurling and a limitless expanse of possibility and wonder in which you would always be the center of attention.

The book costs $19.95, which can be earned back after only the second at-home pencil sharpening. It is also fun to read in public places. Many less entertaining items cost way more.

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