Designed to Disappear

The driving of a nail is a vivid illustration of the kind of skill and agency that is often underappreciated in our time. No one comes out of the womb able to swing 16 ounces of steel on the end of a stick to a precise location with a precise amount of force. This is an acquired skill that, once gained, becomes a mindless and simple task. When a confident craftsperson is absorbed in hammering, there is no consciousness of the features and characteristics of the hammer. The only thing that would bring attention to the tool itself would be if something went wrong ­– the head came loose, the board split in a weak spot, etc. When all is well, however, it is as if the hammer doesn’t even exist as a hammer; it is simply part of the swinging arm.

A good hammer, in fact, is designed to disappear. What differentiates a hammer from any other steel on the end of a stick is that it is a tool for hammering. That is, it is optimized to serve a particular end in a particular context with other things in the world. Hammers drive nails in order to fasten boards in order to construct buildings in order to protect humans from weather in order to provide homes. The hammer is a small, seemingly innocuous instrument, but its role as a driver of nails for sheltering (or building firewood boxes) serves the wider picture of the hammerer’s life. A tool expresses its meaning only in the context of use, not as decor on the wall of a fast-food restaurant off the highway or as a relic from the past.

–Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from “Ready Hands: A Letter to my Sons,” in Issue Ten


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