I imagine you may have some questions. The first being, “is this a joke?” The answer to that is, “mostly.” How to Sharpen Pencils really is about sharpening pencils. There is more real information about sharpening pencils in these pages than I thought existed. There are descriptions of types of pencils, different sharpeners, different sharpening techniques, and the overall philosophy that David Rees applies to his “artisanal craft.” The book is full of photos of pencils in various states of sharpening and the different sharpeners used and Rees himself demonstrating much of what he discusses. There is even a PO Box address where you can send pencils to Rees to sharpen and return to you for the low, low price of $12.50 per pencil. But after all of that, what is the joke?
This is one of those books that is steeped in wry humor and irony. Rees never blinks. He plays it straight on every page. Your enjoyment of this book will depend greatly on how high a threshold for absurdity you have. My threshold happens to be quite high. How to Sharpen Pencils is based on a centuries old shipbuilding guide that Rees found and thus there are elements on best practices and sidebars with only tangentially related information (such as Common Names of American Schoolchildren, example “Gordy” and Uncommon Names of American Schoolchildren, example “Flubby”). The humorous insanity of the book increases with each chapter until you are unfazed by the small crescendo of hilarity at the end. If you enjoy dry humor or if you just hate electric pencil sharpeners, you very well might love this book.
After learning all about pencil sharpening, you can enjoy a parody of an American History textbook, America (the book) by the staff of the Daily Show, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.