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Shop Class as SoulCraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford [audiobook, read by Max Bloomquist]

October 18, 2009

People don’t do things with their hands anymore. That’s the central lament of this book. We don’t make things. Instead of fixing things, we throw them out. We don’t even have the knowledge of how things work to fix them if we wanted to. The trades are devalued in schools, seen as lesser career paths compared to office jobs. As such, we have a culture divorced from the physical things around us.

But what Crawford argues, convincingly, I think, is that the job of physical laborers, of craftsman, have an inherent value to society and to the craftsman that cannot be found in an office. A craftsman draws on experience that goes beyond routinized labor, and in the end he is judged by the physical evidence of his work—does it work? There is value in doing things with our hands, in the act of creation, in the act of physical problem solving. In interacting with our physical world. Perhaps because of our hyper-digitized world, you see a rise in the craft arts, in home improvement, in gardening—in hobbies involving our hands.

Crawford recounts many of his own experiences as an electrician and a mechanic at a motorcycle shop. In prose that at often is rather poetic, he conveys the frustration, education, humility, pride and spirituality that all can come through an act of physical creation or solving a problem that involves physical and mental challenges.

Where Crawford strays into more dubious territory is when he begins to make generalized value judgments about office work. He compares the relationships of office managers to the relationships of mechanics in a shop, with the office managers using a kind of two-faced code compared to the mechanics’ straight-talk. And he compares the definitive success or failure of a craftsman—he can see the results of his work at job’s end—to the more nebulous results of an office worker—often a project is ongoing, success is more abstract and less defined, and as a part of a team it’s often difficult to suss out one’s personal contribution. While I would agree that a sense of accomplishment might be harder to come by in an office environment, Crawford makes too many generalizations based on his minimal office experience and, in the end, comes across as condescending.

That said, the broader premise of the book is important and well said. As for the audiobook, however, I wasn’t a fan of Bloomquist’s read. He overemphasized too many words and made it feel a little forced.

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