Promoting his new book ‘How to Sharpen Pencils,’ David Rees gives his audience a clinic in the lost art

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Rees takes London through the difficult process (Maria Celis)
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The event promised a tutorial on pencil-sharpening techniques both novel and advanced, and that's what the audience got.

Writer David Rees, poker-faced and poker-straight, and a self-styled artisanal craftsman, took the stage at the Union Square Barnes & Noble for his author event wearing a yellow printed apron and khakis that billowed around his frame. Stacy London, co-host of the TLC reality fashion TV show "What Not To Wear," who was also onstage, looked appalled. Moments earlier, she had introduced Rees’ new book, How To Sharpen Pencils, which was being launched on Wednesday, as “an incredibly detailed look at an art that’s been lost.” The author’s clothing style, though, clearly lacked taste as well as the appropriate authorial gravitas.

“This,” said London, pointing at the apron, “says baking cookies.”

“It’s my work costume,” Rees replied, sounding hurt. “It conveys authority, it keeps your shirt clean.”

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“You have to look sharp to be sharp,” chided London, who herself wore on-trend high-waisted black harem pants. She spun Rees around, grabbed the balloony seat of his pants, and noted a brown patch in a strategic spot.

“That’s not my stain,” Rees protested as the audience laughed. “It’s a graphite stain.” But, seemingly cowed by the petite London’s shoolmarmish scolding, he trotted off the stage for a costume change.

Rees, the man behind the Get Your War On anti-Bush political cartoon strip, parlayed his skills with the humble pencil into a mail-order manual-pencil-sharpening business, complete with a spiffy, new-fangled web portal. For $15 a pop, Rees sharpens your pencil and mails it back “with a signed and dated certificate authenticating that it is now a dangerous object.” Also in the mail package: bagged, sealed, and labeled shavings.

The resident of Beacon, N.Y.—that land of old-school butchers, hand-crafted cheese makers, and every order of artisanal thingumajigs—has come to expect one question a lot: Is this a joke?

He answered the query before it could be asked upon his return to the stage, this time wearing a more appropriate black workman’s smock and strapping an illuminated magnifying lens to his head.

“It’s real, guys,” he said. “I’ve made thousands of dollars sharpening pencils.”

The book, a sort of instruction-manual-cum-manifesto, grew out of this business. The vintage-looking hardcover (“Yellow! It works well as a clutch,” London exclaimed, holding the book purse-style at her hip) was inspired by a 1940 shipfitters manual that Rees found in a secondhand shop many years ago. Its elaborate subtitle—A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths and Civil Servants with Illustrations Showing Current Practice—pays tribute to the original.

Rees discovered his passion for the craft when he took up a job with the United States Census Bureau after President Bush, who had inspired his satirical doodling, left office. At a staff training, he was introduced to the tools of the trade for his new job: pencils and sharpeners.

“I realized this is really satisfying,” he said, describing his initiation into census work watching shavings drop into a trash can. “I thought, I want to get paid to do this." Hence the business, and now the book, which blends humor with intriguing facts, solid advice and useful resources for pencil enthusiasts. Rees proceeded to demonstrate the “novelty and advanced techniques” with the help of London and other volunteers. He read out excerpts from the book which they simultaneously enacted, such as "How to Sharpen a Pencil Behind Your Back."

“Insert the pencil into the sharpener,” Rees told London, launching the demo. “Now raise your arms over and behind your head.”

“I don’t want to do that. I’m all sweaty,” London replied coyly.

Rees mock-glared; London complied; whereupon Rees continued to read from the book: “Don’t be alarmed if you can no longer see the pencil and sharpener. This is because they are behind you. Sharpen as usual, making sure the shavings don’t fall behind the back of your shirt.”

London stopped to giggle. “Sharpen the pencil!” Rees intoned with another momentary stare. He returned to reading aloud from the book: “To the casual onlooker, of course, it looks like you’re simply stretching your arms or adjusting your shirt collar. But the small steady sound of a pencil being sharpened will complicate their theory and drive them to distraction. This is the time to turn around and reveal your behind-the-head handiwork.”

London spun around, showing her back to the audience as well as the pencil and sharpener held behind her head. The crowd cheered. Demos of more techniques followed—"How to Sharpen Your Pencil with Your Teeth," "How to Sharpen a Pencil in Front of a Car." The languid pace and painstaking detail of the demos sharpened the humor as much as those pencils.

Then Rees took questions from the audience.

“What is your stance on electric sharpeners?” someone asked.

“There is a chapter in the book on electric sharpeners,” he replied. “I will only say it involves a mallet.”

“What is your favorite number pencil?”

“I only sharpen No. 2 pencils. In this economy, you have to specialize.”

“Is artisanal pencil sharpening really a hobby of the one percent?”

“I have in my backpack a copy of my bank statement that I am happy to share, except that it will make your eyes bleed.”

“What do you do when the graphite breaks off inside the sharpener?

“You have to keep a log of how many rotations you’re making.”

“Will mechanical pencils put regular pencils out of business?”

“I have fairly strong opinions on mechanical pencils. In fact, I have an entire chapter devoted to it from which I will now read,” Rees replied. He opened the book and flipped pages. “Chapter 11: A Few Words About Mechanical Pencils,” he read aloud. “Mechanical pencils are bullshit.” He snapped the book shut. “That is the chapter.”

Demonstrations finished, questions answered, Rees proceeded to sign copies of his book. Not a single pencil was sharpened by him in the course of the evening. But that was never the point.