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on 18 June 2010
There aren't enough really good books about work: most of us spend more of our lives working than doing anything else, but though we might think about a particular job, we rarely consider what it is to work, what makes some kinds of work more satisfying than others. I don't make my living with my hands, but this book gave me a deep and intuitive pleasure, the pleasure of having something articulated which I had felt but not shaped. It's clever, thoughtful and intuitive.
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on 24 August 2010
As a tradesman who does not fit the typical "builder" mould, I have often felt I was in the wrong job. I would look at my office based friends in central london with envy. Trade work seemed to be second rate - something for those who failed at school. I found this book opened my eyes to elements of manual work that I had not previously appreciated. I now see that to work with your hands is holistic, cognatively challenging, rewarding and ultimately really useful! This book offers a highly intelligent reflection on what has previoulsy been considered un-intelligable work. Prepare to be challenged!
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on 2 February 2011
I'm still trawling through this book, it's good. I've taken to marking passages and wandering off in my own thoughts on the points Mr Crawford is making; which is a good thing. Mr Crawford is highly intelligent and is obviously used to writing dissertations, but here lies the problem. His language can be rather arcane and lacks clarification. If you truly understand your subject matter then it can be explained succinctly. This said it's worth filtering the meanderings for the genuinely astute observations.
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on 24 July 2013
This is an easy book to misunderstand, from its wacky three part title, to its folksy language. It also talks about elements of US culture that mean little to a UK audience, like `shop-craft'. Shop-craft is explained in a special preface for UK readers as, `training in things like woodworking, automobile repair, and metal fabrication...that was once a standard part of the school curriculum but is less so now'. It is declining in UK education too, as are the possibilities for genuine physics, chemistry and biology experiments. And sports. There is a lot of detail of motorcycle mechanics which has led it to be compared to Robert Pirsig's unique (1974) book and also misguidedly to be labeled as a bit of a male book. He takes us through his own disillusionment with academia and his discovery of motorcycle mechanics because that is what he knows about. The subject is just an example. In fact I first became aware of the book through an article in the Guardian where the stone-carving, something I know much more about, was used as the example. It talks eloquently about the value of manual work, which opens it unfairly to accusations of idealizing a pre-industrial age, which it doesn't. One of the quotes from a review on the dust jacket says `The best self-help book that I've ever read. Kind of like Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'. Which positions it in the market, well, where? It is part autobiography, part technical manual, part political critique and part philosophy. And incidentally, not like any self-help book I've ever read.
Don't be put off, this is a book with serious academic intentions. It is properly referenced, has lengthy footnotes and an index. If the reader can manage these different aspects they will find some profound messages about the way we live and what we (seem to) find important and how we, and by implications our clients, lose track of what's important. Many of the ideas may have been stated elsewhere, but there are few completely original ideas. Just because something is new doesn't mean it's better. The book's originality comes from the way he combines them and anchors them in his own experience. And reminds us how we forget what is important.
The Introduction is a good summary of the book. He notes that the disappearance of tools from the education system is the beginning of a slippery slope to a wider ignorance of not just how things work technically, but also of our relationship with the things we make use of and incorporate into our lives. He makes good use of Heidegger in expanding this point. This simultaneous detachment from, and dependence on, the objects of everyday life makes us more passive and more reliant on the unseen and often unseeable manufacturer. Where we once made and mended, we now throw away or get an `expert' who actually only has as much knowledge as the manual will allow him to have and is just as ignorant as us of the mechanics and more importantly is unaware of the cost to their well-being of this process. Anyone who doubts this just needs to remember the last time they phoned an internet helpline. Our mending, our repairing, makes the object personally owned because we invest a part of ourselves in it. By doing so I become more meaningfully in-the-world. A look at the high street shows that there are virtually no car spares shops around any more. People no longer buy Haynes manuals simply because cars are impossible to repair without a purpose built computer and specialist tools and anyway if you try you risk invalidating the manufacturers warranty. Cookery, gardening and decorating programmes are everywhere on TV and activities like knitting are undergoing a revival and enormous numbers of machine tools get sold on ebay. So what's going on? Crawford's thesis is that this is not simply fashion or nostalgia, but there is `an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence' (p.2). It is ontological, and if it does not find a healthy manifestation it will find a pathological one in which the crucial features will be evaded, denied and mystified.
The problem with office work, he says, is that the overall task of the institution is split into so many small parts that no one has any involvement, knowledge, power or responsibility to make their mark on the product. The ability to say `I did that'. The significant autonomous act. Personal agency has been edited out and Charlie Chaplins message in Modern Times is still relevant. This is not exclusive to office work, just more prevalent.
Crawford is concerned with the experience and exercising of personal agency which he links strongly to personal meaning. The struggle for personal agency, and hence meaning, he sees at the centre of life's purpose. It has been corrupted in contemporary life in a rather Orwellian fashion and is most clear in advertising where choice and freedom are sold as a commodity. And also in the commodification and reification of sex. We forget that sex is not a thing, it's a relationship. Self realization and freedom is achieved by getting or buying something new. Redemption is achieved by winning the lottery or becoming a celebrity. The common factor is that the person's agency has not been tested or exercised. It has been subverted. This so-called freedom is not freedom at all, it is the opposite, and he cites Mercedes as claiming that a car was `completely intuitive'(p60). A machine being intuitive?? There is an almost psychotic muddling and mystification of the boundaries between humanness and non-humanness, between the pour-soi and the en-soi. He continues the illustration with the example of a Mercedes (again) that has no way for the driver to check the oil level. Instead, a message appears on a screen that says simply `service required'. (Checking the oil requires a service??!!) The driver is not told, nor is thought worthy of being told, why the service is required and is not given the option of doing it himself. All in the name of freedom. Yes, it is a freedom from messing around with rags etc, but in a more profound sense it makes the driver more dependent on something outside his sphere of influence. The driver is in fact complicit in this reduction of freedom and is entangled in a co-dependent relationship with the car company, the dealership, the software designer, and the shareholders who together have the power to tell the owner when to buy a new car that will promise even more freedom. This sort of freedom is the holy grail, indeed it has a spiritual quality. But it is an illusion. Aided and abetted by our complicity with the state and state sponsored monopoly capital we are not becoming more intelligent, we are becoming more like `idiots' (p.98). He clarifies usefully that the original Greek meaning of `idiot' refers not to intelligence but to privacy, someone who `someone who fails to grasp his public role which entails[...] a relation of active concern to others' (p.98). Someone who does not grasp his or her being-in-the-world. Someone who fetishises individuality and specialness. This is the meaning of narcissism.
This rhetoric of freedom is seductive. A personal example - I was thinking of buying a new car recently and was momentarily seduced by an accessory that meant that the windscreen wipers went on by themselves whenever it rained. At last I was free from having turn them on myself -Yes, I want one. As I said, momentarily - I went off the idea when I decided I preferred the freedom to choose whether to have the wipers on or not. It's me that's driving this car, not the car company. It is a part of the idealization (and therefore misunderstanding) of creativity that evokes our tendency for magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence which are characteristics of narcissism. The experience of apparently faultless objects breaking is an affront to this narcissism, this `idiocy', and the trust we (mis)place in the manufacturer. The trust we (mis)place in the manufacturer is the same trust we disown in ourselves. At our cost. By understanding not just how things (objects, relationships, skills etc) work but dealing with and overcoming failure by ones own actions and discovering what can be mended and what cannot, tempers the conceits of narcissism, idiocy, absolute mastery and specialness.
Removed from the process of manufacture into the anaesthetizing process of consumption we nevertheless have a basic need to own in the sense of making ones own, the objects in our world. To be in-the-world. As making our own clothes, literally making our clothes personal, becomes less common, our involvement in those things that make us `us' - e.g. our clothes, degenerates into the next best thing - shopping for clothes. At least if I can't make my clothes, I will choose and buy my own clothes. In the example of cars, I make a car my car by being free to choose (sic) the accessories that will make it a one-off and truly mine, and not like yours. As anyone who has worked with a client with a shopping issue knows, this is not a solution to the problem. The new item only satisfies temporarily because the gap it fills is nothing to do with clothes. It is one of a difficulty with ownership of agency. The problem is one of powerlessness and engagement with life and its vicissitudes.
These are just a few of the interlocking themes in this thought provoking book which is simultaneously extremely personal at the same time as being far reaching. His example is our example. All we have to do is provide our own example.
Although he talks about the value of manual work, hands are a metaphor for personal agency, the way the present-at-hand transforms into the ready-to-hand, engagement with problem solving and the ability to take a task through from beginning to end. To know from experience the qualitative difference between the beginning, the middle and the end. And to be able to persevere and succeed by ones own ability.
In order to find out the accuracy of Crawford's thesis, readers could do worse than to ask themselves what it is exactly that they find meaningful about their jobs.

Martin Adams
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on 13 July 2010
This was published in the USA last year as "Shop Class as Soulcraft; an inquiry into the value of work". It's not very long, and highly readable.

To a certain extent, Crawford is in the same territory as The Craftsman in lauding craftsmanship and painstaking skill, but whereas Sennett rambles self-indulgently around the workshops of violin-makers in Cremona, and discusses literary approaches to cooking a chicken, Crawford is more grounded. He does not use the effete term "craft", but concentrates on the manual "trade". And his paradigmatic trade is repairing motorbikes.

He has an impressive academic background, including a degree in physics and a doctorate in political philosophy, and enough form as an office worker to reject it on an informed basis. He can also appeal to having practised as an electrician on small-scale construction sites.

He runs a motorbike repair shop as his main business. He knows what he is talking about, as some fascinating stories testify, even if readers may not really understand them.

There's much too much for a blog post here, and of course if I go into it too much you may not read the book. But...

* He celebrates work which gives direct and unmediated feedback; do it right and the machine works again. Do it wrong and it doesn't.

* He bemoans current systems which don't do that--but he talks about them as if they were deliberately constructed as if to obscure feedback. They aren't. It's just that in most areas of practice today you don't find out at once if something is working or not (see Jaques "time-span of discretion")

* And he castigates managers and modern work practices for focusing on process and compliance rather than outcomes and results. I have a lot of sympathy, and I moan about it myself, but complex organisations are just like that. Sorry!

* Crawford's conception of manual work is somewhat idealised, even romanticised. He nods in that direction in his acknowledgement that working as an electrician on new-build work is less interesting than repairing faults. And of course, manufacturing new motor-bikes on a production-line represents exactly the de-humanising work against which he inveighs.

* It's symptomatic of the fragmentation of work about which Crawford complains, that some of the most relevant work of recent years, such as situated learning (Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives)), deliberate practice (The Road to Excellence: Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games) and evThreshold Concepts within the Disciplinesen threshold concepts (Meyer and Land), does not get a mention.

Well worth reading, but particularly for his discussion of the intellectual component of practical work in the first five chapters.
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on 18 June 2010
This is a fantastic book - simply and elegantly written, and very powerful. Crawford's thoughts on the modern workplace really resonate. He gives a clear and articulate voice to what I'd experienced previously only as a bundle of vague dissatisfactions and yearnings. Reading it was a very rich experience indeed and I throughly recommend it to others.
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on 9 June 2010
I enjoyed this book because it gives a personal account. It is written by a person who is living his passion, and it must be good to have the courage to do what makes you feel great. It's not an easy read as it is a most serious topic tackled in a non-trivial manner. The sequence of the chapters don't necessary roll coherently but the writing is full of passion and real life experience. This book should be put on the National Curriculum to initiate some thinking...
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on 5 March 2014
I'm all for the message behind this book, but why was it written in such dense, academic language? I'm a reasonably educated person and I found it incredibly hard-going. It felt like a PhD with a friendly cover slapped on the front. It saddened me because I felt there were many people who would find it inspiring and motivating, but are likely to be turned off by the language if they're not particularly scholarly (he knows who they are, see p. 53!). As far as I could tell, the author was addressing us as school leavers/office workers/manual workers, so I feel he should have brought his writing in line with that. The ability to simplify is a sign of mastery!
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on 25 June 2010
I have not finished this book but the sections I have read talk of the same satisfaction I have from my own trade, a working jeweller, when often the satisfaction far out weighs the price achieved in the process. The book is fairly well written although I found the philosophy rather muddling at times.
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on 27 April 2013
I read this book in 2011 having received it as a gift. I had occasion recently to recommend it to a colleague and arrived at the Amazon page in order to send him the link to the book. I noticed there were reviews on the book and to my surprise noticed that some had given it one star. Having read some of the one-star comments, I was compelled to respond.

This is not a book you can read with one eye on the TV, Michael Crawford has a background that includes philosophy and it is clear that he knows how to reason. He also writes well and he has some really wonderful examples to illustrate the underlying message. I'm a scientist and a teacher. I grew up on a farm that afforded both opportunity and need to develop practical skills. As a youth, I loved tinkering with machines, engines especially, and I continue to find discovering what is wrong with a machine that no-longer works - and fixing the problem - hugely rewarding. Matthew describes some examples in which his mentors have approached an engine in distress with exactly the same intellectual rigour as might be demonstrated by a doctor attempting to diagnose what ails his patient. The same skills of observation (of symptoms) combined with the experience necessary to reorder a mental list of likely causes that includes awareness of both the likelihood of something being the root cause as well as the difficulty (or in the case of engines, expense) of testing ones' diagnosis by investigation or treatment.
This is a wonderful book that argues powerfully that the choice to follow a technical training should be seen to be every bit as valuable as the choice to enter the alternative intellectual training provided by universities. Kids who choose a technical training should NOT be seen to have failed to progress to university - a technical training is not second-best.

Here's an example of where intellect without practical knowledge falls down - [...]

Buy the book, read it and take the time to think about the bigger picture.
An excellent book.
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