Pencils and Nothingness

David-reesMark O'Connell on David Rees's How to Sharpen Pencils, in The New Yorker:

The book is an extended exercise in narrative tone. There’s a kind of punctilious courtliness to Rees’s instructional writing that seems both wildly counterintuitive and naggingly familiar (when I interviewed Rees, he mentioned that he’s an avid collector of early-to-mid-twentieth-century industrial manuals, and that the tone he cultivates here is partly a result of that obsession). His alertness to the subtle absurdity of the passive voice invests the chapter on the “Anatomy of the #2 Pencil” with a wonderful deadpan resonance. “It is assumed,” he begins, “the reader is already somewhat familiar with the #2 pencil. Let the remarks below serve only to further refine his or her understanding in the context of best sharpening practices.” Shortly after, we are informed that it “behooves” us to inspect foreign-made pencils “for any deficiencies that would render sharpening attempts futile.” It’s a stylistic high-wire act, and Rees never teeters, even when he shifts into full-on absurdist mode in later sections on celebrity-impression and telekinetic pencil sharpening, or the appendix on wines that taste like pencils. (Bordeaux reds are the way to go, if you’re interested.)

It’s a little ridiculous to invoke Melville when discussing what looks like the kind of book you might buy for the bathroom, but at points I couldn’t help thinking of “Moby-Dick.” Melville is forever describing, at near-preposterous length and detail, the arcane practices of whaling and seafaring and, through a kind of intellectual prestidigitation, making them signify larger philosophical and moral truths. He was a genius of transfigured triviality. Rees is occasionally capable of pulling off a similar feat, albeit on a much smaller scale. The tension between the desire for perfection and the need to live in a world in which perfection is impossible is a covert theme in the book, and Rees’s frequent allusions to the analogous relationship between an imperfect pencil tip and an imperfect life seem both goofily ironic and utterly sincere. In its unsharpened state, he writes, a pencil is like an ideal Platonic 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.”