If you send David Rees an unsharpened No. 2 pencil and $12.50, he'll mail you back a sharpened pencil. He'll also return a bag of shavings because, as he writes in his new book How to Sharpen Pencils, "the shavings are part of your pencil, after all, which means they are your property."
Rees, who grew up in Chapel Hill and now lives in Beacon, N.Y., started his artisanal sharpening business after nearly a decade of writing scathing political satire. His webcomics, such as Get Your War On and My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable, juxtaposed unapologetic, hard-left social commentary with repurposed clipart—years before the proliferation of memes. But shortly after George W. Bush left office, Rees quit comics. Ready do something new, he ended up working with something old instead.
"I only deal with No. 2 pencils," he says. "I specialize."
He's talking from Portland, Ore., which he jokes is "just like the show [Portlandia]," near the end of the West Coast leg of the How to Sharpen Pencils tour.
"It's been really interesting to see people's reactions," Rees says."People have been showing up at events with old pencils to be sharpened." He says a woman in Austin, Texas, had him sharpen a pencil a teacher gave her 25 years ago. He told her to wait another 25 to use it.
"I think when I started this project, and especially with the book, people assumed that just because Get Your War On was satirical that this whole project is making some satirical point about artisanal culture," says Rees. With his webcomics' basis in clipart, there was always a deadpan element—with emotionally neutral office drones ranting back and forth about national politics, dropping gratuitous-for-effect F-bombs. The minimalist backdrop gave anchor-like consistency—and humor, ultimately—to angry, angry political commentary. In that context, it's unsurprising some readers would wonder: Is this a joke? "I'm not saying there's not some humor to it," he says. "But it also really is, literally, a pencil-sharpening business."
When Rees quit comics, he found work going door to door for the 2010 U.S. census. At one training session, he had to sharpen pencils. And he found it so satisfying that he launched artisanalpencilsharpening.com in June of that year. The new book it spawned is his first publication of original material, he says (the others largely anthologized in print his webcomics). "It does feel really different from the cartoons to me. It's satisfying in a different way," he says. "One of the things that I like about this project is that it's apolitical. Anyone can enjoy it. You don't have to believe that Dick Cheney is a war criminal to enjoy a pencil sharpener."
To be clear, when How to Sharpen Pencils is funny, it's very funny. Its prose should be familiar to anyone who's read Rees' comics: purposefully flat, instructional writing is punctuated by surprising—sometimes sidesplitting—moments of deadpan absurdity.
On sharpening with pocketknives: "If you're having trouble distinguishing between the blade and the handle, ask a more experienced friend or relative for help."
On returning shavings: "A bag of clean shavings, aside from looking delightful, should put to rest any concerns your client may have about your technique: that you used an electric sharpener instead of a hand-sharpener; that you hoard shavings for your personal use; that the 'pencil' is a plastic simulacrum; that you passed the shavings through your body before returning them, etc."
Yet it's also a meditative book, with patient pacing and compulsive attention to detail. In many places he succeeds in making this menial task read like a respectable craft.
"I spent so many years stuck in my own head, reading political blogs and making stuff for the Internet," he says. "It was fun to do things with my hands. It's really satisfying to sharpen pencils and send them to people." And he enjoys the disconnect—irony, even—of using an online business to sharpen people's pencils for them and mail them back.
Rees owes his strong sense of irony to growing up in Chapel Hill, he says, and still thinks of the town as home. His middle and high school friends have been the biggest influence on his sense of humor, not to mention Chapel Hill's time-tested combination of academia and progressive thought with the obnoxious revelry of partying college kids and the reckless abandon of indie rock. Living in a Southern town that doesn't completely feel like part of the South helped shape his ironic sensibility, he says.
Growing up here, Rees never particularly identified as Southern. But that changed when he left for Oberlin College in Ohio. "I feel like it was that tension, feeling a part of the South when I was away from it, but then when I'm in the South, then the perspective switches again and then I look at the South maybe with an analytical mindset," he says. "It's that distancing that's one of the defining characteristics of an ironic sensibility, to be able to distance yourself from the culture and look at it as an outsider. I've always kind of felt that way."
And it may be that things have come full circle for Rees, whose career has largely been a study in irony. After all, he used to visit The Regulator as a middle-schooler to check out fringe magazines and widen his perspective overall. And this Friday he will be there, promoting his book, sharpening pencils and catching up with the people who helped him develop his sense of humor.
After learning important lessons at The Regulator as a local kid, it appears he's returned as an adult to make a few points of his own.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sharp satire."