Pencil-Sharpening Machine David Rees Talks Malcolm Gladwell, William F. Buckley, Telepathic Pencil-Sharpening, and More


Pencil-sharpening maven David Rees turned the non-fiction writing series at the Mid-Manhattan Library upside-down Tuesday night with his edgy pencil-sharpening workshop — based on his instructional book How to Sharpen Pencils.

Rees, a former full-time political cartoonist, is like the Liam-Neeson-in-Taken-2 of pencils. No matter what you throw at him, not even hundreds of dangerous international crime-lords, you can’t break him.

I came into the workshop wanting to make fun of it, but as it turns out, Rees, the satirist, already made it funny. Some critics and pencil-purists accuse him of mocking the craft , but as it turns out, he knows a shit-ton about pencils and how to sharpen them.

He actually has a pencil-sharpening business, through which he’s cranked out more than 800 pencils to customers world-wide.

He somehow managed to make learning about pencil-sharpening fun — with his profanity-laced, lighthearted and surprisingly informative presentation.

Not everyone in attendance was into the shenanigans, however. An older woman named Ms. Maggie, who brought her personal pencil and pencil-sharpener to the workshop, demanded that Rees cut the “jive” and give her pencil a good point.

It was quite a scene. Unfortunately the authoritarian librarians in charge of the event, who were very sweet ladies by the way, wouldn’t allow me to record information for a full story. Luckily I caught up with Rees yesterday afternoon for the Voice’s second chat with the satirist this year. He revealed even more penetrating secrets about the book and his workshop.

The exchange has been edited and condensed for clarity:

Can you call yourself a true Malcolm-Gladwellian master of pencil sharpening?

I don’t know if I’ve done 10,000 hours yet. I’ve done a lot, that’s for sure. I’ve done more than my peers. Maybe not quite 10,000 hours, but I’m taller than most people so maybe each hour counts for more somehow.

Is the general public ready to handle secrets on how to sharpen pencils using only the mind?

I hope so. If they’re not ready, we’re going to have a big problem on our hands.

What do they need to know to get to that level?

Well, “sharpening a pencil with the mind” is the last chapter of the book, and so I kind of want to introduce all of the other physical techniques before we get into all the really deep metaphysical techniques.

Why’d you write this book?

I had my pencil sharpening business, and a publisher came to me and asked if I thought I could write a book about it. At first I wasn’t sure what form the book would take, but once I realized that I wanted it to be a how-to manual, where each chapter would be a different technique, then it became very easy to write, because I’ve always collected old how-to manuals. I just like them. So, it’s kind of an homage to that type of classic mid-20th century how-to instruction manual.

What was the last major innovation in pencil design?

In the 19th century Hymen Lipman attached a pencil eraser to a pencil for the first time and got a patent for that here in the United States. I mean there are other innovations that I’m not fond of like mechanical pencils, or electric pencil sharpeners, or plastic composite pencils, but in terms of classic pencils, and the stuff I like, it’s Hymen Lipman.

Why is William F. Buckley one of the most important voices of our time?

I used to subscribe to the National Review Magazine, a conservative magazine. And, I’ve always been fascinated with him because of his face, and his voice and his just his attitude. I just think he’s a fascinating dude and I wanted to have some references to him in the book. I don’t agree with much of anything that he ever said, but I mean he was a greater writer. Just as a prose stylist, he was a wonderful writer to read. It’s just everything he said I thought was kind of disgusting.

What’s your message to Ticonderoga fans?

I think it’s a decent pencil. It’s probably the best pencil you could buy at big box store like Staples or Office Depot, but there are better pencils out there. The worst pencils that people buy — that they complain about a lot — are just the cheap Chinese ones, no-name brands that you buy at Wal-Mart and stuff. Those are not good pencils. It’s probably worth investing money in a higher quality pencil. The point will last longer, the pencil will last longer and you’ll probably be less frustrated.

Could you tell us a little more about the “Jimmy Hendrix” sharpening technique, and where the legend ranks in your top 1,000 greatest guitarists?

I think he’s better than top 1,000. I think he’s top 500. I think that’s what I say in the book. He’s really good, and he’s probably in my top 100 personal favorite guitarists. The behind-the-back technique is just a fun, goofy novelty technique to do. When I was writing a chapter, I was just thinking how to take something that everyone does without thinking about it, sharpening a pencil, and just come up with goofy twists that would make it silly to do. The whole book is about rediscovering pencils and rediscovering sharpening pencils — looking at it with fresh eyes so you’re more conscious of it when you’re doing it. So that’s what the novelty technique chapter is about.

How can pencil-sharpening help you improve your celebrity impersonations?

Well, your celebrity impersonations improve your pencil-sharpening. Everyone needs a gimmick right? If you want to get a crowd together on stage and sharpen pencils for them, doing it as a celebrity is just another way to think about sharpening pencils — as an activity that just seems very commonplace, but you can approach it with a new mindset, and make it more fun and more bizarre.

Do most people know you do such a good Jay-z?

I used to be convinced I could actually do a really good impersonation of Jay-z, and my friends all told me it sounded nothing like Jay-z. So that’s kind of a testament to when I use to think I was good at impersonating Jay-z. I now believe, after multiple people have told me, that I do the world’s shittiest impersonation of Jay-z.

What is the biggest misconception about pencils?

That there’s lead in pencil lead. There’s never been lead in pencil lead. That is the number one misconception about pencils. Clay and Graphite. Graphite is just a particular molecular form of the element carbon, just like diamonds. Graphite and Diamonds are both carbon, it’s just their molecular structure is different. So, pencil leads are graphite and clay and binding agents that bind the clay and the graphite together. That development was invented by a Frenchman named Conte…It was also developed in America by Henry David Thoreau’s father, who was in the pencil industry. You know the guy who wrote Walden? He got his money from his father’s pencil factory.

What are the hottest pencil spots in New York City right now?

Wherever I’m doing a reading for my book or teaching people how to sharpen pencils. There’s the pencil buildings in Greenpoint; the old Eagle Pencil factory is a cool place you should go. And, any high-end stationary shop that specializes in unusual or high-quality pencils. I recommend people going and investing in some good pencils. It’s really a cheap investment, but it’s worth it in terms of the improvement in your quality of life.

I say pencils are obsolete, what’s your response to that?

American consumption of pencils rose % 6.8 percent from 2010 to 2011, so they’re still growing. Even in the age of iPods and iPads, pencils are still really cheap efficient communication tools, and again that’s like one of the points of the book so-to-speak — to celebrate pencils.

Well, I stand corrected.