Beth Daniels | Essays

Beth Daniels: Taking Things Seriously VI


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.

This short essay is excerpted from Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, a book by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes in which they and other writers discuss the importance of objects in their lives. This is the sixth essay in a series to appear on Design Observer.

Posted in: Media

Comments [7]

These beautiful unseen objects are fascinating. Thank you for sharing.
Kevin M. Scarbrough

i cannot believe this because pencil sharpeners from germany are some of the best that are made like sharp blades or sharp needles.

However pencils as of late are faultier and faultier. I do not know where to find a good pencil anymore.

Perhaps this pencil sharpener comes from Eastern Germany and that's why it doesn't work well. Objects made in communist countries were never top quality.
Barbara Kawalec

I see we are all using our first names now. Hmm...

Anyway, I remember these pencil sharpeners. Not this particular one, but the TV shaped pencil sharpeners with the 3-D screens. They were quite popular when I was in elementary school in the 1980s. I know that I personally owned more than one. I believe I had one that had Mighty Mouse in the TV screen (which is not nearly as cool as a trapeze artist, I suppose.)

I can't wait for the book to come out. These posts are great.



Life is:
Nutcracker sweet vs. bananas

Ten years from now, I believe that 3D pencil sharpeners will be worth as much as gold. At least in design value, anyway.
Creative Something

It's interesting to note how these objects sometimes (at least temporarily) own us.
John M

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