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Less than the sum of its parts--but what parts!
on 7 March 2008
I really wanted to like this book more than I did in the end. I had heard Sennett talking about it on Radio 4 ("Thinking Allowed" 6 February) and was fascinated. It is a topic which usually is only addressed in passing, but worthy of a serious treatment of its own. I started to read with enthusiasm, but eventually it became harder and harder work and I almost gave up.
It has to be said that the parts are fascinating, and Sennett the musician and even the cook are as much in evidence as Sennett the sociologist; substantial sections stand alone as engaging examples of original and stimulating reflection and insight. And one cannot deny the amazing range of Sennett's erudition, the disciplines over which he ranges, the forms of craft about which he writes. (Strangely, the discipline to which he pays least attention is the substantial body of psychological research on skill acquisition.) But the result is sprawling and disorientating; his attempts to summarise chapters and stages in the argument just draw attention to the problem of fitting them all together. Perhaps it would have made more sense to publish as a collection of essays without any attempt to impose an overall structure.
Although Sennett can hark back to Homer and Hesiod, and more recently to Ruskin and Morris, he is to the best of my knowledge effectively inventing the modern study of craft as a discipline. So he is not writing within a tradition; he does not have prior work with which to argue, and even the methodology of study is vague.
Incidentally, although I have nowhere near the range of scholarship that Sennett displays, there are places where he deals with writers with whom I am quite familiar, and I did not always recognise his treatment of their ideas. And although he acknowledges assistance with proof-reading, there is a substantial number of errors. There are just eighteen pages of notes and no separate bibliography; given that no reader is likely to match Sennett's range of background reading, it would have been useful to trace more material back to its source.