A Practical Man: David Rees’ How to Sharpen Pencils at B&N Union Square
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
1. Sara Chicazul, a Maker of Things, including her pipe-cleaner pencil cup headdress, with Chase Gordon, a Motion Graphics Designer, who are sartorial mavens, in my opinion. 2. CBS was there filming B-Roll. That is a camera, book people, if you can believe it.
“I am not a novelty act. I sharpen pencils. And I’m pretty good at it,” said David Rees during the Q&A of his book’s launch last night at Barnes & Noble Union Square. How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisinal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, For Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice, is a “serious” look at artisanal pencil sharpening, and Rees is not joking. He makes money. For $15 a pop, you too can have your No. 2 pencil manually sharpened by Mr. Rees, who is best known for his political cartoons, replete with bagged and cataloged pencil shavings. With performances by Eugene Mirman (Delocated, Flight of the Conchords), Stacy London (What Not to Wear), and Sam Anderson (Critic-at-large for New York Times Magazine), last night was one of the most unorthodox literary events I’ve ever been to, and one of the best.
1. All these people were here for…pencils? 2. Eugene Mirman, holding up one of his Facebook ads. This one involved kitties. Aw.
Eugene Mirman warmed up the crowd with a short stand-up routine. “This is how comedy should be done: at a well lit book store. Gonna talk about some nasty shit. There’s no kids.” I know Mirman mainly from his role in this show, but had never seen his stand up. The man is hilarious. Mirman’s routine was varied, but centered around trying to understand people. Once, for example, he signed up for Christianmingle.com, despite being a Jew. The account was active for one hour under the name Princess Thunderballs. “My favorite food is fear, and I want to marry an old woman,” his personal ad read. Mirman was also quite fascinated with Facebook personal advertising, which was the highlight of his act. Mirman was so taken with the idea of these ads that he bought some space and listed some of his own. “This one reads ‘Stop Feeling Sad — Are your problems stupid? Click here to agree!’ This one got about ten clicks, and was directed at 18–19 year olds living in Brooklyn who listen to Wilco and Belle & Sebastian.” Mirman had us reeling. Another favorite, about a time he had to return a cell phone while on tour in London: “I needed a reason to return the phone. So I said, ‘This phone believes in Intelligent Design.’ I watched the girl begrudgingly type it in.”
1. Stacy London ripping into Rees for his poor choice in clothing. Look how sad Rees is! 🙁
2. Sam Anderson, resting his double-sub bass voice.
Stacy London, host of TLC’s What Not to Wear, ran on stage to introduce Rees and informed us she was there for a reason: she had a fondness for No.2 pencils. London also noted that one who pursues artisanal craftsmanship — especially pencil sharpening — had to have an artistic mind, just as a stylist must be creative in his/her pairings of silhouette and color. London felt an affinity with Rees this way, right up until the crowd watched Rees approach from the side wearing a ripped shirt, stained chinos and a pastel yellow apron, or “smock,” that was much too small. As London stood jawdropped, repeating, “This is what you wear?” Rees simply replied: “I’m not a snob like you. I will go where other men have been.” London chided Rees on his too-big chinos which had a brown stain, but he defended thrift store pants: “That’s the nice thing about used clothes. You can say, ‘Not my stain.’”
Before Rees left to the super secret upstairs floor at B&N, where they house fancy clothes, he introduced his friend Sam Anderson who is the editor of a “zine” published in Midtown. Anderson brought an acoustic guitar with him on stage, and to the tune of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” let us know that Rees’ book was the “3D, tangible, real world stand-in for Rees’ brain for the last three years.” Anderson showcased his own craft of the acoustic guitar. Anderson learned guitar from his father, sitting around the fire, who had a peculiar physical ailment which gave him a peculiar singing voice. The chin stretched all the way to his waist, and Father Anderson would tuck it into his waistband to make Little Anderson laugh. As such, the signature Andersons singing voice is a “double sub bass,” which sounds like a toad in a Roald Dahl novel who has ingested too much acid. As Anderson croaked-sang the end of “Blackbird,” the crowd whistled along. By far, the best Beatles cover ever.
1. London demonstrating the difficult, Hendrix-inspired Behind the Back technique, with Rees being encouragingly constructive. 2. The mysterious audience member, who was quite proficient in sharpening a pencil in her mouth.
Rees reappeared in a sharp shirt and slacks, topped with a navy canvas apron and state-of-the-art headgear, featuring an eyeguard with lights to better see graphite tips. I assume this was especially made for Rees, given his expertise. A deadpan Rees announced he would demonstrate some of the Novelty Sharpening Techniques featured in his book with the help of his magician’s assistant, Stacy London. The first was “Sharpening a Pencil Behind Your Back,” which was partly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. This technique requires the Alvin Brass Bullet, which is a single-blade pencil sharpener most commonly used by grade school students, and not recommended for sharpeners with less than 200 hours of sharpening experience. “Don’t be alarmed if you can’t see the pencil or sharpener. They are behind your head.” Rees instructed London to “rotate the shaft,” to which she was confused. Rees glared. “Sharpen the pencil,” he ordered.
Next was sharpening a pencil in your mouth. This was definitely a planned routine with another celebrity guest, but since there were at least five blonde women who wore glasses in attendance, an audience member ran up to the stage before the guest (who left before I could get her name.) Rees didn’t flinch. “And what reality television show do you host?” Rees asked, to which the woman replied, “I’m auditioning.” Rees instructed his impromptu assistant to clamp the Alvin Brass Bullet in her mouth, “blade facing out so the shavings do not fall in your mouth — See, I’ve thought of everything.”
The highlight novelty sharpening act — Sharpening a Pencil in Front of a Car — required the assistance of two audience members, one who had to be comfortable on all fours. The appeal of this technique, Rees explained, is a sort of metaphysical symbiosis between the horizontal position of the car and the pencil sharpening position, its movement, and the vertical position of the sharpener. A related technique, not demonstrated, was a “drive-thru special,” to which pencil sharpeners at drive-thrus may ask “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon for my pencil?”
1. Can all readings be like this? Please? 2. The handsome pair of Kelly Murphy, Digital Marketing at Penguin Press, and Ariel Bogle, Assistant Publicist at Melville House. I convinced them to come to Nerd Jeopardy next week (you should too), and I will beat them. Or join their team. Either one.
The Q&A was hilarious, as expected, but what I did not expect how real Rees’ knowledge of pencil sharpening is. Literally. Rees spewed so many facts about sharpeners and the history of pencil manufacturing that it sounded like I was at a convention. Rees said he’s made “thousands of dollars” sharpening manually sharpening pencils, and the two very funny, unintentionally literary questions revealed Rees’ aim of the book. On electric pencil sharpeners: “There’s a chapter on how to use electric pencil sharpeners. All I will say it involves a mallet.” And on mechanical pencils: “There’s an entire chapter — Chapter 11 — devoted to mechanical pencils, which I will read in its entirety: ‘Mechanical pencils are bullshit.’” The last five years or more have seen a surge in a desire for authenticity, namely in sartorialism. Brands like Ralph Lauren and Levi’s have made a huge comeback, men and women buy $800 Barbour jackets because they are the “originator” of something, and some go so far as to source mid-century undergarments. Rees parodies this to the T, simultaneously showing the ludicracy and satisfaction the need for authenticity has produced today. Though Rees doesn’t condemn it. As he joked about getting into pencils: “I had a job at the Census … We were instructed to sharpen our pencils … I thought, ‘this is really satisfying.’”
— Ryan Chang is from Orange County, CA and lives in Brooklyn. He is the Staff Writer for the Outlet, and his fiction and essays have appeared in Art Faccia and Thought Catalog. He is in the internet here and here.