On the surface, David Rees's How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants is just a protracted mockery of the mania for "authenticity" and "artisanship" -- poking fun at the pretense of snobbish reworking of everyday objects and tasks into extremely precise and expensive amusements for the bourgeoise (ultimate milkshakes, high-priced hand-roasted coffee beans, small cask liquor). John Hodgman's very funny and acerbic introduction certainly hints at that, and by the book's end, that's what Rees is getting up to, with chapters like "How to Sharpen a Pencil With Your Mind" and "Mastering Celebrity Impression Pencil Sharpening (CIPS)."
And yet. The first 100+ pages of this book are, for the most part, an incredibly detailed and often loving obsessive's guide to putting a really, really fine point on a pencil. Notionally this is the outcome of Rees's "Artisinal Pencil Sharpening" business in Beacon. But there's just a little bit too much detail in these sections to just be a parody. I'm left with the inescapable conclusion that Rees just fucking loves sharpening pencils. Really.
And like everyone who puts a lot of attention into something that we do without any conscious thought, Rees has, in fact, found something marvelously obsessive and fascinating at the heart of the everyday. As silly as it seems, there really is something deeply satisfying about a really sharp pencil.
It's this genuine obsession at the heart of the mockery that makes How to Sharpen Pencils more than a predictable, bitter indictment of "hipsters" and the world's delight in hand-crafted, attentive care in the everyday. Because for all that Rees is poking fun, he's also there, at the coalface, unquestionably putting dozens (hundreds?) of hours into getting his writing implements into a state of deadly pointfulness. From his vantage-point atop Mount Obsessive, Rees is able to see far and wide, and the picture he paints there is both true and very, very funny.
If Rees's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the guy behind Get Your War On (AKA "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable" and "My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable") -- one of the greatest political webcomics of all time.
Rees's publisher, Melville House, was kind enough to supply a PDF of chapter 2 for your delectation and edification.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.