On Point: David Rees, The Proust of Pencil Sharpeners

April 19, 2012 | 14 10 min read

David Rees is best known for Get Your War On, the satirical clip-art comic strip in which two colleagues, Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, discussed the War on Terror. It was consistently hilarious in nailing the linguistic and political absurdities of the Bush-Cheney era. Then, when George Bush left office in 2009, he stopped doing the strip. He subsequently set up a small artisanal pencil sharpening concern from his home in Beacon, N.Y. His new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, is the product of that new project. It’s a very, very funny book, but he’s not just kidding around. It’s an exercise in sustained seriocomic tone that somehow manages to be both elaborately ironic and completely sincere at the same time. He also really knows a lot about sharpening pencils.

coverThe Millions: I have to say that, as much as I’ve enjoyed the book, one of the effects of reading it is that it’s become much more difficult for me to sharpen pencils. I now feel very intimidated by the whole process, whereas before I just did it without too much thought.

David Rees: Well, the whole point of the book was to try to defamiliarize pencil-sharpening as an activity, so that people would just approach it from square one again. One of the things I liked about starting the artisanal pencil sharpening business was that it made me think about pencils in greater depth than I probably ever had in my life. And the more I thought about them the more I appreciated them as really efficient, elegant tools. But sharpening pencils is always a little intimidating, especially with the single-blade pocket sharpener, where you might break the tip or you might not be satisfied with how it turns out. Frankly I think the book is meant to make sharpening pencils simultaneously less and more intimidating.

TM: One of the things I wasn’t really aware of before I read the book is the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. in terms of pencil sharpening practice. You’ve got a whole chapter on wall-mounted pencil sharpeners, and that was completely alien to me as an Irish person. I’d never heard of such a thing.

DR: Are you being serious?

TM: Completely serious. Are they a common feature of American classrooms?

DR: Yeah, absolutely. They’re the first sharpeners that I remember using. They are very much a part of many Americans’ childhood. And that whole chapter is kind of about nostalgia and growing older, about how different it is to encounter something like that when you’re an old man like me, rather than a kid who’s full of promise. You can call me the Proust of pencil sharpeners, I’ll take that honorific.

TM: It’s all yours. So I’m interested in how the structure of etiquette surrounding pencil sharpening differs between the U.S. and Ireland. First of all, when I was a kid we didn’t even use the term “pencil sharpener.” We called them “pencil parers” or, sometimes, “toppers.”

DR: Jesus Christ. What kind of backward society is Ireland?

TM: Listen, it’s a national embarrassment. You’d put up your hand and ask the teacher for permission to go to a bin in the corner of the room, and you’d sharpen it directly over the bin.

DR: See, I like wall-mounted pencil sharpeners in American classrooms because it’s one of the last vestiges of a communal good in our free-market society. It’s something that everybody uses. I’m surprised to hear that you communists overseas are using your own individual sharpeners in classrooms. It’s a very Ayn-Randian position to take. “I’ve got my pencil sharpener, fuck you if you can’t afford a pencil sharpener! Sharpen your pencil with your bootstrap!”

coverTM: Tell me about the origin of your interest in pencils. You’re known as a cartoonist, but your best known work doesn’t involve any actual drawing. Get Your War On, and pretty much everything else I’ve seen of yours, is all clip art.

DR: I always found the penciling and inking of cartoons to be completely onerous and beside the point, because I was just interested in the writing. So for me the pencil sharpening doesn’t really bear any relationship to the cartooning. It all came out of working for the Census Bureau. A couple of years ago, I quit cartooning and didn’t have any money, so I just got a job working for the United States Census, going from door to door. And on the first day of staff training they gave us this bag of supplies for the months ahead, with pencils and a little tiny pencil sharpener, and told us all to sharpen our pencils. And I thought I’d rather get paid to do this than go around knocking on strangers’ doors and get yelled at by paranoiacs.

TM: Did you get a lot of that hardcore anti-Fed stuff?

DR: There was a very small amount of that, but it wasn’t as explicitly political as I thought it would be. I dealt with one man who was mentally unstable and literally a SWAT team became involved. When you get to an address and there’s nobody home, you leave a message for them telling them to call you. And when I got home that night there was a really angry voice mail from this guy who was really upset, like “why are you in my house?” I called him back and said I was just looking for information, and he told me he was going through a really hard time. You’re not supposed to escalate situations like that or anything. The next day I was back in the neighborhood and noticed the house was surrounded by guys in Kevlar vests with automatic rifles. I talked to one of the cops, and it turned out the guy had gone off his meds and thought that his neighbors had been in his house and that they’d killed his mom. He’d thrown a brick at his neighbor and told people he was inside with a gun. It was really scary and not fun, but everything resolved itself with a minimum of violence. But that’s not your typical census story.

TM: Less call for SWAT teams in the artisanal pencil sharpening racket, I’d imagine.

DR: So far. We’ll see what happens on tour.

TM: What kind of reactions do you get from people when you’re doing live sharpening, from people who are just coming to it cold, and don’t have any idea about you or what you do?

DR: Well, it depends on the demographic. Some people are like, “Oh, I get it, it’s an art project.” Or like, “Oh, I get it it’s an Internet prank, or a big huge joke.” And none of those are entirely correct. It is a real thing. I am actually doing this. I’ve done almost 500 pencils for paying customers now. Some people have a hard time understanding, and then you literally just tell them exactly what happens: I have a website. People send me $15 through the Internet and then I sharpen a pencil for them, and then I fill out all this paperwork and send it to them. And then the conversation usually ends in stunned silence or just an avalanche of questions.

TM: It seems to me like a joke that is also, paradoxically, 100 percent serious.

DR: Etsy.com, the arts and crafts site, ran an excerpt of the book, but they ran it on April 1st, so the comments were all like “Oh, what an amazingly thorough and well-documented April Fools prank.” And a friend of mine summed it up in kind of a good way, by saying that the joke is that there is no joke. Obviously, the publisher decided to market the book as a humor book, but my goal was always — and you can’t do this for obvious marketing reasons — but I was like, “we should market it as a how-to book, because that’s the form that it assumes.” Granted, it gets a little crazy towards the end, but that’s basically the form of the book.

TM: I was really struck by the tone of the book. It seems weirdly refined in a way that was oddly familiar to me, but that I couldn’t quite place.

DR: That’s because it’s the voice that God speaks to you with when he answers your prayers. But for years, I have collected early-to-mid 20th-century industrial manuals and how-to guides. And a lot of those books are written in a slightly elevated, gentlemanly tone. Like, “The reader will be forgiven for thinking that this die cast mold will produce…” And for me, that tone is just so intoxicating. It’s slightly aspirational, like it’s written for the gentleman plumber or something. It’s fascinating, because these are blue-collar manuals, but the writing is often so much more ambitious and literary than what you would expect if you went to a Home Depot today and just bought a book called How to Put Up Fucking Drywall. That’s why I wanted the book to have poems in it and references to Biblical verses, because I really wanted to pay homage to all those books in my personal library.

TM: Reading it, I kept asking myself what you were satirizing. And then I kind of realized that you weren’t really satirizing anything.

DR: Right. It’s not so much trying to satirize anything as just elevate pencil sharpening, and defamiliarize it so that people can realize how awesome it is. The joke isn’t like, “Oh, sharpening pencils is so stupid. What if I goof off and make it sound important.” I’m into it. It’s satisfying. And I have some kick-ass pencil sharpeners. I think my background as a satirical political cartoonist informed a lot of peoples’ preconceptions about what this project was. And I’m trying to be careful in the tone of the book to make sure I’m not just shitting on Etsy people or craft fairs or something. It’s not a mean-spirited project in the way that Get Your War On could be.

TM: There are a couple of moments where it recalls Get Your War On, like where you suggest the reader grab the audience’s attention before a novelty pencil sharpening technique by saying “I’m about to straight skull-fuck your mind.” But in general it feels like the work of a completely different person.

DR: I get really impatient with projects after a while. I like switching my voice and switching modes. But here’s the other way that the book functions a little differently, that I don’t think anyone will pick up on other than me and one other person. Me starting my pencil sharpening business over the last two years coincided with the end of my marriage. And the book, in a way, is kind of like a memoir of the last two years of my life, disguised as a pencil sharpening manual. I know that sounds super-pretentious and ambitious, but it’s in there in terms of references and throwaway lines. I sent a copy to my ex, who now lives in Paris, and she just picked up immediately on things that I hadn’t even noticed about the book. Like just how much of my life as an adult was in the book. So in a way, the book has like an elegiac or melancholy vibe underneath all of it. Because part of the point of the book is that when your whole life is collapsing, you might very well become obsessed with pencils. Or just any kind of weird, random thing that you can lose yourself in that’s just completely removed from all the emotional concerns that are whirling around your head.

TM: Obviously there are lines in the book where you mention your ex-wife, but for whatever reason I just sort of glossed over those references. Possibly because I read the narrating voice as the voice of a character you’d created rather than you yourself.

DR: I wouldn’t say I’m playing a character. But I get what your saying, in so far as those little mentions of my ex-wife are supposed to be kind of jarring, to catch you up short, to hint at something unspoken that’s running through the whole narrative, to the extent that it is a narrative. I initially wrote an introduction in my own voice, and the publisher said, “No we don’t need this, it gets in the way of the character.” And I would always get upset when he would call it a character. Like, I get that I’m all dressed up and making funny faces and writing in a weird voice. But it’s not just a character. It’s me writing about my life in the language of these industrial manuals, as if those are the limits of my language for this project. And I have to express technical information and emotional information in this voice. So I’m glad we cut the introduction in the end, because I think the foreword John Hodgeman wrote puts it in the real world in enough of a way. But I do think of this book as a book about myself. I’m like every other 30-something, middle-class white person: I feel like the world owes me my best-selling memoir. But I guess, in the end, this pencil-sharpening book will have to do.

TM: Well, maybe coming at it from a weird slant is the best way to write a memoir.

DR: Yeah, maybe it is. Because I love coming at things from oblique angles, or setting up constraints. That’s why using clip-art is so fun. Like with Get Your War On, it was like, let’s just fucking work these two pieces of clip art to death, and just do everything you can within those constraints.

TM: It’s just occurring to me now, because I’m holding the book in one hand and a classic Staedtler #2 pencil in the other, that the design of the book is modeled on the yellow and black color scheme of the pencil.

DR: Yeah, exactly. Also, you probably haven’t noticed this, but at the top of the book the threading is pink, and at the bottom the threading is dark. That represents the eraser and the tip of the pencil. That was the designer’s idea — when he told me about it I nearly creamed my pants. You could say we almost over-thought this motherfucker.

TM: I think you did about the right amount of thinking. But the knowledge you’re laying down here is incredibly detailed and thorough. You think you might be in danger of putting yourself out of business?

DR: It’s not a worry. In fact, it’s the goal. I don’t want to do this forever. I wanted to just throw open the doors of my workshop and just share my secrets. Whenever an article gets written about my pencil sharpening business, there’s always someone who’s like “Fifteen dollars? I’ll do it for ten!” And I’m always like: “You know what? It’s a free market economy, knock yourself out. Let’s see what you got.” It’s enough for me to know that I’m first in field, as they say. I invented this industry, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned, and hopefully empower people to sharpen their own pencils.

TM: So is there an optimum degree of sharpness for a pencil in your view? I find I get obsessed with having as sharp a tip as possible, to the point where I spend as much time sharpening as actually writing with the thing. Because, of course, the sharper the tip the more likely it is to break.

DR: That’s true. And obviously there are so many metaphors you can make about sharpening a pencil, and the tension between trying to have an idealized tip and a practically usable tip. At some point, you just have to trust that the point is good enough and just put it to the page and get to work. As opposed to just doing what I’ve done my entire adult life, which is just staying trapped in my head and being terrified of engaging with the world because it will be less than perfect. If you have to write about your own emotional and psychological shortcomings and traumas in the guise of an industrial manual, pencil sharpening is a great one to do because it’s so obviously symbolic and metaphorical. There’s a tension between trying to make something perfect and actually having to be in the world and make use of it. For me it’s useful to keep that tension in mind and to remember that it’s great to have a pencil mounted and displayed on your wall, but it’s also just great to have a pencil in your pocket.

Image Credit: Flickr/buechertiger

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.