Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford

Crabbing in Alaska

I finished high school and hopped on a plane to Alaska to board the SS Akutan and spend the next months processing the king crab you order from your favorite restaurant. Let me tell you, the people who ran the boat? They knew about work. I worked, worked some more, and some more after that. In between work, I ate, slept, and played poker on green felt, stashed under the seat by the captain. . Finished with the season, I went to university to study biology and chemistry with frequent forays into wanton Bacchanalia. I got stuck at school, about halfway through, needing money. Dad got me a job with a buddy looking for some carpentry help. Everyone is different so you might not understand this, but I felt that I slipped through a crack in the world and landed in Nirvana. I was first to the site in the mornings and spent evenings file-sharpening saw blades while watching TV. I started to measure everyone by their connection to trade and handwork and felt sorry for those poor souls who sell something for a living. I still do. I remember introducing a guy at church to my wife. I said he was our plumber, a worthy moniker if I knew one. He corrected me with a pained look on his face, explaining that he was only plumbing as a way to pay for business school. I saw right through him. He was a poseur and dropped several tiers in my book. In my most humble of opinions, he was trading in his birthright for shiny marbles.

Akutan, Alaska, 1915
Akutan Alaska, in 1915, where I hid out for a season. Credit, University of Washington Library

Shop Class as Soulcraft

I was duly excited when I stumbled onto Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft at our local bookstore. I hoped hard this would be one of those books that burned in my heart.

Crawford identifies his purpose right away, wanting to “rehabilitate the honor of the trades.” He rues the demise of the ‘useful arts’, and I agree. When I worked in carpentry, my boss used to laugh and wonder if he would have ever had graduated from high school without shop class. And people lose something, I think, something human and dirty, when we measure them by how they understand seventeenth-century France instead of by how they can fix the stairs into their house. Certainly – and I am a pure Francophile – there is value in knowing French history, in knowing any history, but it’s a rarefied knowledge with limited use. To fix the stairs, though, you need a basic understanding of biology (why does wood move like that?), something of math (how to cut stringers to account for treads and risers?), and human nature (do the risers all have to be the same height?)

In the final analysis, if we are to be individuals, the purpose of art and craft is the same as knowing French history. There is a satisfaction in knowing why Voltaire wrote what he did. There is satisfaction in knowing why we write or why we chose to do what we do. There is a satisfaction, too, about sawing a mortise and tenon joint just so, in an unforgiving wood, so the glue lines are all but invisible.


Other Reviews

Amazon opens its review of the book with a blurb from the Boston Globe: “[the book is the] sleeper hit of the publishing season.” I don’t know what metrics are used to be a sleeper hit, but in my estimation, as a whole, it’s more of a sleeper than a hit.

Crawford starts out well – the first fifty pages were captivating in a way that had me nodding my head and sharpening my wood planes. As I kept reading though, an idea gnawed at me that Crawford was looking for a book to write and simply ran out of steam. After the opening salvos, he strays and circles and tries to fit puzzle pieces that are the wrong shape. There’s no question that Crawford writes for the choir – and it’s a huge choir – but I would have liked a tighter argument.

It’s not a bad read: the ideas are worthy, and time tested, and satisfying. It’s a slow book though, both because of the depth of ideas and slow because he forces ideas where they don’t make sense.

These are my ideas only, honed by my own experiences. Call up the book on Google and you can see pages of accolades. The New York Times Book Review called it a Notable Book of the Year. As stated, The Boston Globe called it a sleeper hit. About his other book, The World Beyond Your Head, Kirkus – never afraid of being offensive – says of the author, a research fellow at the University of Virginia, that he is “Occasionally ponderous and strident…”

Read it for the first chapters, especially if you often dirty your hands at work. It’s nice to hear something noble about your work…

Three stars.

See here on Amazon.