Approximately every 365 days there falls a date celebrated for many things, but in my household principally as the anniversary of my birth. Yes, you have anticipated me: it was my birthday.
As is delightfully customary, I was showered with gifts, chief among them a tome that has, quite simply, changed my life.
How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees (henceforth referred to as “The Master”) sets out in clear and pellucid prose the principles and practices of that once-exalted, now sadly under-appreciated craft, the sharpening of pencils. He includes a complete theoretical underpinning, and much sage and practical advice to the novice, not omitting (which gladdened my swordsmanly heart) a thorough warm-up. Because, let us face this truth unstintingly, pencil sharpening is primarily a physical craft, to be mastered before approaching the metaphysical sharpening of graphite encased in fragrant cedar.
The Master is clearly a man of surpassing patience and precision, but he does not neglect the aesthetics of his art: interleaved throughout this meisterwerk are “Reveries”, miniature photographic essays of appreciation for early mechanical pencil sharpening devices. These are included, I think, to raise the reader to a state of consciousness better suited to a deeper appreciation of the perfection that is tantalisingly visible in the crafting of a pencil point, yet will ever elude us.
Just as perfection must ever elude the author of any book. I might point out that The Master, whose veneration of accuracy verges on (but never quite o’ersteps the bounds of) pedantry, would under no circumstances have written “site” for “sight”, as appears on page 96. I suspect some publisher’s minion, jealous of an attainment that will forever be beyond their grasp, of deliberately inserting this homophonous error. Perhaps the same saboteur that misleadingly and entirely erroneously placed this book in the “Humor” category. (I apologise most profusely to my readership for the appalling lack of a ‘u’ in Humor, here. I am quoting directly from the back cover of the book and cannot be held responsible.)
Yet there remains one baffling omission: nowhere does The Master address the pressing issue of pocket-sharpener maintenance, other than simple cleaning of the egress slot. It is surely necessary to, as occasion demands, remove the blade with a small screwdriver (of a type common to jewellers and electricians), and polish the flat of it on a suitable whetstone, re-shape the bevel on same, and return it to the sharpener body, being careful to replace the screw snugly to prevent it falling out, thus freeing the blade with potentially serious consequences, but not so snugly as to render future removal for re-sharpening unnecessarily laborious. This simple process can in many cases transform a lacklustre sharpener.
Here, I also must point out that in my time as a cabinet-maker, I was wont to sharpen pencils with a very sharp chisel, and for the finest point, a small hand plane. This is, I admit perhaps beyond the scope of the specialist pencil sharpening professional, but I would, if pressed, be willing to demonstrate these techniques for the edification and delight of fellow enthusiasts.
Neither of these lacunae are sufficiently serious to detract from the overwhelming excellence of this book; I mention them in the spirit of the ambitious pursuit of perfection that so imbues this work.
This book is not just for Christmas: it is, like puppies, for life.
What the world really needs right now is obviously a better beginners’ guide to training