Every once in a while, a book is written that, while not explicitly focused on woodworking or furniture, manages to perfectly encapsulate the core essence of why we (as woodworkers) do what we do. The bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is that kind of book. Its insights have been illuminating for us here at M&T, and we’re thrilled to now be stocking it in our store.
Author Matthew Crawford has a unique perspective. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy and runs his own motorcycle repair shop. Early on in his career, he landed every intellectual’s dream job as director of a Washington think tank. But he soon left that position, disillusioned by the lack of tangible and practically useful work going on. After that experience, he opened his bike shop and got his hands dirty.
Back in Issue Nine, Nancy Hiller recommended this book for our readers. Getting at the heart of Crawford’s argument, she wrote of the value of engaging in physical processes “in which the stubborn otherness of material – the rusty bolt that shears off in defiance of your wrench, the board you cut an inch too short – consistently provides a reliable (if exasperating) corrective to the kind of self-importance it’s easy to feel in more abstract fields of endeavor.” This is precisely the corrective that we at M&T seek in today’s world of so-called “knowledge work,” where the digital and intangible (and transient) occupy more of our mental space than the real and physical. If concepts and philosophies are not grounded in the concrete, where is the legitimate human value?
I began writing last week about the value of doing things for yourself – how learning skills and gaining manual competence is both fulfilling and freeing. It’s also an increasingly countercultural move, as the design of most of our modern appliances and devices intentionally excludes the consumer from access to the inner workings of the thing. Crawford’s work is foundational to our thinking in these areas. It’s a tremendously thought-provoking and engaging read (I just started my way through it again). You should check it out.