Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Shop Class As Soul Craft

When I was small I wanted to be a carpenter. I was going to conquer the world by turning wood and power tools into furniture. I would be like God except with a chain saw. 

Sadly my parents refused to let an eight year old anywhere near the chain saw. Instead my dad brought back bars of hotel soaps from his business trips and I spent hours carving them into birds with a butter knife. Well. They looked like birds to me. Most people thought the looked like pre-birds. In other words, eggs.

Anyway, my desire to be a carpenter died a quick death in middle school shop class, when I discovered that yes, you actually have to measure pieces of wood before you cut them, yes, using power lathes meant for right handed people when you’re left handed means you will hurt yourself, and yes inhaling the deep rich scent of wood shavings when you have asthma will land you in the nurses’ office.

 …My shop teacher was a dear sweet man and he was so happy when I stopped taking shop class.

Still, woodwork has never quite lost its magic. The idea that you can take a tree and turn it into a chair continues to astound me.

tree eating chair
I am a beautiful little tree.I eat beautiful little trees for breakfast.
Okay, when you put it this way, it doesn’t seem environmentally kosher, but still magical.

So when I read the blurb on the back of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft,  I was sold.

“Those of us who sit in an office feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.”

Technically I modernize financial systems. I go to meetings about these systems. I draw diagrams about these systems. I write papers on them. During moments of pure madness I compose songs about these systems.

I can’t picture them. I’m not supposed to. They're invisible. Actually, it's a little disheartening when you realize you spent your day writing reports about invisible systems. You start wondering if you’re invisible, kind of like a unicorn. You hear about unicorns all the time but since no one has ever seen one so common sense insists they don’t exist. Actually, I hear more about unicorns than the systems I work on. Does that mean unicorns are more real than my job?

Matthew Crawford can sympathize. He got his Ph.D. in political philosophy and went on to work on a think-tank where people seriously specialize in unicorns. Then he decided he was oh-so-done with unicorns so he quit his job and opened up a motorcycle repair shop.

Unicorns are not motorcycles

I was all set to do some serious idol worship. Then I made the mistake of actually reading the book.

Unfortunately, Matthew Crawford, Ph.D., former think-tank braniac, and current motorcycle repairman, writes like, like….oh hell, you just have to read it for yourself. Here’s a passage:

“The factory service manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you have to develop your own decision tree for the particular circumstances. The problem is that each node of the new tree, your own unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity. There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt.”

Did he accidentally eat all his Ph.D. textbooks and vomit them on the page? Is he trying to convince the reader he is Smartz For Realz? Maybe he bought a new dictionary and he’s trying to get his money’s worth?

Forget soul craft, where is writing craft? No wonder he hates the abstract, when you habitually salt your conversation with words like “gestalt” everything is an abstraction. If Crawford was talking about Gestalt theory or psychology, or even philosophy, I could forgive him. But he’s talking about fixing motorcycles.

You know what another phrase for gestalt is? The bigger picture. If you’re feeling fancy you can even use holistic. Of questionable taste but permissible. But. Don’t. Ever. Ever. Fucking. Use. Gestalt. Mark Twain will come out of the grave and smite you.

Oh my God. Can you imagine eating breakfast with the man? ‘Darling, after examining my decision node I’ve decided pancakes will optimize the number of utils derived from ingesting carbohydrates.’

Words should never obscure concepts, they should clarify them. I mean, yes, it’s pretty sweet to think up an idea, but if you can't communicate your idea clearly, the idea is of no use to anyone. You might as well go back to picking your stomach lint instead of dreaming up ideas. Shop Class as Soulcraft is about how all the abstract concepts we learn in college do not outfit us for the real business of living, yet it is written in such absurdly abstract collegiate language Crawford utterly fails to get the message across.

Perhaps Crawford is trying to be ironic.

Photo Credits:
Unicorn, Rich Ercolani


  1. If you have not read the "Hyperbole and a Half" blog...you should. You'd really enjoy it, i think, and it reminds me a little bit of your lighthearted writing.

    I'm going to be following you for your book reviews! "Shop Class" sounds like the kind of book I'd love in theory, since I think I have a lot of similar ideas in terms of craftish kinds of work. But when your book is one long accidental exercise in irony...ugh. I'm glad you suffered through it, so that I know not to ;)

  2. I love that blog. Especially the entry about cake. In fact, when I read that once I decided I want to be Allie Brosh when I grew up.

    ssshhh. I suffered through the first 26 pages. then um, well, it's on my nightstand. :)

  3. "For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle" and now are unable to comprehend any language that is not "Managerese"...

  4. MIFFY!!! On a unicorn! Unicorns are better than motorcycles, especially the ones Crawford repairs.

  5. @Gilrandir One of my coworkers and I have decided that law school is all about teaching people how not to write. We realized that when you actually pay attention to legal documents that make no sense, it's not because they're uber intelligent, it's because the writing sucks.

    @tamasha420. man, if I could ride a unicorn through the streets I'd be set.

  6. Re: legalese> Reminds me of the TEDtalk where the one guy manages to write a credit-card agreement on a single side of paper in readable font:

    Which would never fly, of course, because contracts like that *depend* on people being unable to understand what the hell they're signing away.

  7. That hurt my soul. And I see it everywhere. It's like there's a special kind of writer they hire to do write that awfully. The anti-writer. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing language contorted to make ideas completely incomprehensible and then having that...that...perversion of language being labeled as intellectual. It's unethical, disrespectful and and and just WRONG.
    And the worst part is when you do write something clearly people go...uh...there's something wrong. The voice is too simple. *head desk*

  8. In a completely unrelated note, that beanie baby may be worth money now :D

  9. Srsly? Still? I thought that craze was over.

  10. Words should never obscure concepts, they should clarify them.

    Hell, yes! Especially legalese.

  11. "We realized that when you actually pay attention to legal documents that make no sense, it's not because they're uber intelligent, it's because the writing sucks."

    Ehem, if I can play the devil's advocate here, it's not that the writing sucks, it's because lawyers must detail. everything. ever. If it wasn't thought of and written down, it didn't exist. This is no excuse for pompous vocab though, so continue on with that complaint.

  12. @W
    I agree with you. I don't think details and good writing are mutually exclusive though. Maybe some amount of complicated writing is necessary because there are so many loopholes, but even there's on excuse for a convoluted sentence or using unnecessary vocab.