When I began reading “How To Sharpen Pencils” this week, I felt sure that author David Rees was turning my crank.
Rees begins his little pencil-yellow book with “The Pencil Sharpener’s Tool Kit,” listing, among other items, his favorite sharpeners, including the Alvin Brass Bullet single-blade pocket sharpener; the Palomino-KUM, a two-step pocket sharpener that he says “produces a lovely, long point”; the Dahle 166 single-burr hand-crank; and the El Casco double-burr hand-crank. “This is the finest hand-crank pencil sharpener in the world,” he says. Okay, so this smacks of parody, I thought, suspecting he invented those names to convince gullible readers those sharpeners truly exist, like the bit at the end of the movie “American Graffiti” that tells each character’s history subsequent to the movie to add realism to the story. But I found every sharpener on Amazon, so that shoots that theory. Maybe he is serious, I thought.
Next he presents pencil anatomy, defining the parts of the pencil and the sections of the sharpened tip, followed by a taxonomy of irregular points, showing problems with points and collars, the latter the place where unsharpened barrel meets tapered wood. He offers the detail of an engineer’s handbook combined with the artist’s perspective: “No point can serve all needs. The unsharpened pencil is, in contrast, an idealized form. Putting a point on a pencil — making it functional — is to lead it out of Plato’s cave and into the noonday sun of utility. Of course, life outside a cave runs the risk of imperfection and frustration. But we must learn to live with these risks if we want enough oxygen to survive.”
Then I turned the page from that sage advice to Chapter 3: “Warm-Up Exercises” and a photo of the author doing a knee bend and an arm stretch. I knew then he was joking — at least in part. “Take a few moments before each sharpening job to make sure your body is comfortable, free of disease, and sufficiently stretched to maintain the muscle control, flexibility, and range of motion necessary for pointing pencils.” He demonstrates thumb and deltoid stretches, and then I was sure he’s kidding, but next he shows a hand stretch exactly like that I use to limber up my fingers before playing music.
Rees explains sharpening pencils using a pocketknife, single-blade pocket sharpener, single-burr hand-crank sharpener, multiple-hole pocket sharpener and double-burr hand-crank sharpener. The El Casco M430-CN falls into the last category. El Casco, based in the Basque region of Spain (http://www.el-casco.com/), makes luxury office equipment. “The El Casco offers four different settings for graphite exposure and point length,” Rees says. It is plated with a mirror-like chrome finish (list price $440) or 23k gold (list $520). (I’m not making this up. You can buy these sharpeners at Amazon for $430.76 and $486.88, respectively.)
Just when I’m starting to believe this is a serious, detailed study of a lost art, Rees says in Chapter 11 that “Mechanical pencils are bulldung,” although he didn’t use the word “dung,” and Chapter 13 explains how to use an electric pencil sharpener, which involves a mallet and physical violence. (Maybe I’ll embark on a similar campaign against electronic music tuners.)
If you still thing it’s all a joke, see the website http://www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com/ and decide for yourself. And if you still can’t make up your mind, this nugget tucked away in the index is no help: “My strongest memories of using a wall-mounted sharpener date from my 7th-grade pre-algebra class. … I was reprimanded for sharpening my pencils too frequently! I remember flushing with bewilderment as he insisted the reason I constantly sharpened my pencil was because I enjoyed disrupting the class — not to mention the amusing and pleasant comments I made while traveling to and fro. I was (and remain) skeptical of my teacher’s theory; I can only speak to the satisfaction I felt every time I returned to my seat with the sharpest pencil in the room — a pencil which could sometimes maintain its point for five minutes before needing to be retooled by the device inconveniently located in the corner of the room farthest from my desk.”
Read “How To Sharpen Pencils” and you’ll gain new insight into a writing tool and a sharpening device that we all grew up with. Never again will you take for granted a finely pointed pencil, nor will you crank that sharpener on the wall without an appreciation of the complex set of blades and gears sharpening your pencil and allowing you to design a building or sketch a tree. And is Rees joking, or is he serious? Yes.
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