In Praise of the Oblivious Narrator: Two Book Recommendations

how_to_sharpen_pencilsTo my mind, the greatest shortcoming of the electric pencil sharpener is not its limited utility, but the way it alienates its user from the pencil-sharpening process. In a culture that prizes openness and accountability, this device remains a defiantly closed system; the ultimate black box; a windowless abbatoir.

The unreliable narrator can be an effective literary device, whether the unreliability stems from a weakness for rationalization (Humbert Humbert) or temporary impairment (Venya on his way to Petushki). But for comic writing, few things work as well as the oblivious narrator, the one who takes him or herself and surrounding situation completely seriously when any other person (e.g., the reader) would double over in laughter.

A friend who accompanied me to what I judged the second most-boring museum in the world (The Pencil Museum in the Lake District) recently did me the kindness of mailing me one such book: David Rees’ dead-on, dead-pan guide to the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening. The quote above is an example of the portentous tone of the book, in which an emotionally stunted weirdo who has devoted way, way, way too much time and thought to pencil sharpening dispenses wisdom regarding his craft. I think I pulled a gut muscle reading it and if you like this sort of humor, you’d do well to check it out.

bookAnother book that is just as funny in the same way is my favorite Washington D.C. satire: The Columnist by Jeffrey Frank. The narrator is political journalist Brandon Sladder, a self-involved, self-serious jackass who addresses the reader with the evident intention to impress. He invites us into what he considers the high-minded, well-informed Washington insider life that he thinks he leads, but the result is that pretty much everyone but him recognizes that he is an empty-headed, shallow hanger-on. It’s wickedly delightful and if you know our nation’s capital, painfully familiar at the same time. As with Rees’ book, if you like this style of comic writing, you will be richly entertained by The Columnist.