The story of a philosopher who seems a bit surprised that there are so few job openings at the Big Philosophy Companies and ends up becoming an electrician instead. After discovering that being an electrician is not really his calling, he moves on to being a motor cycle mechanic. But he never gives up his college training of being a philosopher. Matthew B Crawford fills all of his anecdotes with small asides of the great thinkers and uses as dry and technical a writing style as any college textbook.
Shop class is mentioned only in passing and I don’t even recall him saying that he actually took any shop classes. The bulk of the book is his desire to return us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear where everyone could rewire a lamp or replace a carburetor. The bit that he glosses over is that in those glory days everyone had to know how to repair cars and appliances as they were always breaking.
Along the way he retells my favorite bit from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which an idiot casually destroys part of the hero’s bike in his clumsy attempts at repairing the tappets. It’s a great story, and one of the few items in that long rambling book that made any kind of sense at all. Matthew finds the idiot mechanic a disgrace to the profession and uses the story as a jumping off point for all the free association and random dead ends that come from real world bike repairs.
There are only a few bits of reality to hold onto in Shop Class as Soulcraft as well. There is a lot of talk about Work and how the invention of the assembly line destroyed everyone’s desire to do a good job, since there is little pride to be found from putting a nut on a bolt. He talks about an old book he found which details how cars were once made by hand and that the wheel makers went so far as to go out and find the correct tree to be used. The lowliest form of work to be found now is the dreaded cubical dweller who does nothing useful at all.
It’s the rare book that I need a dictionary close at hand to fully understand. I understood all of the words in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, but I was often confused by the ways in which they were used and the concepts they were attempting to put forth. One of Matthew’s blue collar jobs was writing article abstracts-often of scientific papers-and it seems that he brought those skills to bear on his own words. This is an abstract and esoteric work that tested my patience a couple of time.
I like the idea that there is some value to be gained from taking shop class, working with your hands, and taking pride in what you do-and these are ideas that the author seems to share. The problems is that this is a wonderful topic which should have been a brilliant book-and it might well be brilliant, if only someone who isn’t a philosopher gets around to writing it. As it is, Matthew B Crawford takes himself and his topic a little too seriously.