Taking Things Seriously (6)

By: Beth Daniels
December 17, 2019

One in a series of posts reprinting true stories about significant objects from the 2007 collection Taking Things Seriously (Princeton Architectural Press), edited by Joshua Glenn and designed by Carol Hayes. For contemporary reviews of the book, click here; for info on Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s ongoing Project:Object operation, click here.


A German-made plastic pencil sharpener shaped like a TV. Its 3-D screen shows a girl trapeze artist in black tights swinging over a circus crowd. I found it in 1992 in the top drawer of my assigned desk at the American University in Cairo, where I taught English. I used it maybe twice for its stated purpose and gave up because these things never work properly, and I hate pencils.

I’d been living in Egypt just under six months and had adjusted to the noise, the traffic, the poverty, the sheer number of people, and the utter lack of privacy. I regarded this little find as a symbol of my worldliness. So attached was I to it that when a freak earthquake hit Cairo, it was one of the things I found in my hands when I made it outside.

At the time, there was an ad campaign for Tetley Tea on Egyptian television featuring overdubbed footage of Hitler giving a speech. In Arabic, Hitler said something about how England had the ships, America the planes, but “we have the tea!” So my German pencil sharpener took on another meaning: Where the hell was I? What kind of Jew was I to be living in a country where it’s as acceptable to use Hitler to sell beverages as it is for Americans to dress up as Lincoln to sell cars?

Today the pencil sharpener lives in my office, where I do not work as a teacher, or with anything remotely to do with the Middle East. It still has a piece of graphite stuck in it.

TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY: William Drenttel on ARTICHOKE | Dmitri Siegel on BIG BOTTOM EXCITER | Greg Klee on SANTA | Carol Hayes on “THINGS” SAMPLER | Tom Frank on WWI HELMET | Beth Daniels on PENCIL SHARPENER | Chika Azuma on GRAMMYFOAM | John Keen on COMPUTER CABINET | Josh Glenn on BAUDELAIRE DEATH MASK | Luc Sante on POSTER FRAGMENTS | Becky Neiman on CHEESE BOX | Rosamond Purcell on BREAD | Paul Maliszewski on RUBBER STAMP.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.