How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Con

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A Year in Reading (And Not): Mark O’Connell

For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I’m always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads.

There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain — like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form — taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it.

I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading — as opposed to merely purchasing — Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics — love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis — that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance:
Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted.
I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls — and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time).

The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: 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. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later.

As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels — Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine — straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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The Millions Top Ten: November 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Naked Singularity
6 months

2.
3.

This Is How You Lose Her
3 months

3.
2.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
4 months

4.
6.

Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
2 months

5.
4.

NW
3 months

6.
5.

Telegraph Avenue
3 months

7.


Both Flesh and Not
1 month

8.
7.

Gone Girl
4 months

9.
10.

A Hologram for the King
4 months

10.
9.

The Patrick Melrose Novels
6 months

 

With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don’t miss Garth Hallberg’s profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel’s first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer.

Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We’ve got an interview with one of the editors.

Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Naked Singularity
4 months

2.
2.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
2 months

3.
5.

This Is How You Lose Her
2 months

4.
3.

NW
2 months

5.
4.

Telegraph Avenue
2 months

6.


Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
1 month

7.
8.

Gone Girl
3 months

8.
6.

Bring Up the Bodies
6 months

9.
10.

The Patrick Melrose Novels
5 months

10.


A Hologram for the King
3 months

 

Our hurricane-delayed Top Ten for October has arrived. This month we see a new Paris Review anthology land on our list. We recently covered its creation in an interview with one of the editors. Meanwhile, Dave Eggers’A Hologram for the King returns to our list after a month off wandering in the desert.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don’t miss Garth Hallberg’s profile of De La Pava from June), and D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book’s opening paragraphs), and Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (our review) leapfrogs other big fall books to land the third spot.

We had two books graduate to our Hall of Fame: How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (don’t miss the hilarious, yet oddly poignant interview) and Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Near Misses: Shakedown, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, An Arrangement of Light, The Fifty Year Sword, and New American Haggadah. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Naked Singularity
4 months

2.
2.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
2 months

3.


NW
1 month

4.


Telegraph Avenue
1 month

5.


This Is How You Lose Her
1 month

6.
3.

Bring Up the Bodies
5 months

7.
5.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
6 months

8.
7.

Gone Girl
2 months

9.
4.

How to Sharpen Pencils
6 months

10.
6.

The Patrick Melrose Novels
4 months

Millions readers know: we had been looking ahead to September as a big month for books for quite some time, with new titles arriving from three of the biggest names working in literary fiction working today. We reviewed all three books and all three landed high up in our Top Ten this month with NW by Zadie Smith (our review) besting Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (our review) and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (our review).

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don’t miss Garth Hallberg’s profile of La Pava from June), and D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book’s opening paragraphs). Dropping off our list are New American Haggadah (just missing our Hall of Fame), A Hologram for the King, and Binocular Vision (read our interview with author Edith Pearlman)

Other Near Misses: An Arrangement of Light and How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

A Naked Singularity
3 months

2.


Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
1 month

3.
3.

Bring Up the Bodies
4 months

4.
4.

How to Sharpen Pencils
5 months

5.
6.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
5 months

6.
5.

The Patrick Melrose Novels
3 months

7.


Gone Girl
1 month

8.
7.

New American Haggadah
6 months

9.
10.

A Hologram for the King
2 months

10.
9.

Binocular Vision
3 months

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is our newest number one, with a ton of reader interest since De La Pava was profiled by Garth Hallberg in June. The book replaces Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams in the top spot, as it graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our list has two debuts this month. D.T. Max’s widely anticipated biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace lands in the second spot (read the book’s opening paragraphs). And Gillian Flynn’s juggernaut of a novel Gone Girl is our other debut. Dropping off our list is Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, which was brought to our readers’ attention when author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic.
Other Near Misses: Broken Harbor, How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and The Flame Alphabet . See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Train Dreams
6 months

2.
8.

A Naked Singularity
2 months

3.
2.

Bring Up the Bodies
3 months

4.
3.

How to Sharpen Pencils
4 months

5.
6.

The Patrick Melrose Novels
2 months

6.
5.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
4 months

7.
4.

New American Haggadah
5 months

8.
7.

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language
4 months

9.
9.

Binocular Vision
3 months

10.


A Hologram for the King
1 month

Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams is our number one for a second month in a row, while A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) leaps six spots to number two, putting it in good shape to be next month’s number one when Train Dreams graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our lone debut, meanwhile, Is Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King. Eggers is no stranger to our lists. Zeitoun was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2010, while The Wild Things had a brief run in the Top Ten in late 2009. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus drops off the list after a one-month stint.
Other Near Misses: How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and Broken Harbor. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
5.

Train Dreams
5 months

2.
6.

Bring Up the Bodies
2 months

3.
7.

How to Sharpen Pencils
3 months

4.
8.

New American Haggadah
4 months

5.
9.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
3 months

6.


The Patrick Melrose Novels
1 month

7.
10.

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language
3 months

8.


A Naked Singularity
1 month

9.


Binocular Vision
2 months

10.


The Flame Alphabet
1 month

Four books — John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift — decamp for our Hall of Fame this month. The former three were brought to the attention of our readers during our Year in Reading series in December, while the latter anchored a holiday gift guide for writers.
With all those books departing, our new number one is Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams. It also makes room for three newcomers on the list and a returning title, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision. The debuts are Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (reviewed here in February), A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (we reviewed the book in early January and interviewed Marcus later in the month).
Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, Open City, The Great Frustration, 11/22/63, and Gods Without Men. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Pulphead
6 months

2.
3.

The Book of Disquiet
6 months

3.
2.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
6 months

4.
4.

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
6 months

5.
6.

Train Dreams
4 months

6.


Bring Up the Bodies
1 month

7.
10.

How to Sharpen Pencils
2 months

8.
5.

New American Haggadah
3 months

9.
7.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
2 months

10.
9.

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language
2 months

Our one debut this month is one of the most anticipated books of the year: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, her sequel to Millions July 2010 Hall of Famer Wolf Hall. The arrival of the Thomas Cromwell juggernaut bumps Binocular Vision from our list. David Rees’ How to Sharpen Pencils is the other big mover on our list, jumping three spots. Our in depth, hilarious interview with Rees from last month is a must read.
Next month should be very interesting as we’ll see the top four books on our list move to the Hall of Fame, opening four new spots.
Near Misses: Binocular Vision, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and 11/22/63. See Also: Last month’s list.

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