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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

on 15 September 2009
Matthew B. Crawford's appeal for a society that engages more with its material world caught my attention some time back in a recommendation that I saw. My father retired from electrical engineering some time ago, and now does all kinds of DIY jobs for people. Because I spend most of my time uninvolved with such work, but intrigued by the idea of finding what so fascinates my father, I picked up Shop Class as Soulcraft thinking that Crawford might provide me with some insights. He did just that, and challenged my thinking with trenchant philosophy to boot.

A word of warning, as much as Crawford's book is the story of a how gearhead came to open his own shop, it is also, and probably more so, an academic philosopher's appeal to the academically-inclined and college-educated to give greater credit to those who are involved in manual labour, the trades, and the crafts. He explains his case as an academic would using academic language, references, end notes, and the other mainstays of academia. This book is not a memoir, neither is it just a story about the pleasures of construction. Instead, it is a philosophical attack on the motives for college education rather than 'vocational training', in which he argues that college education is turning people into cogs, and that 'vocational' training is more cognitively challenging than universities and politicians would have you believe. Consequently, you should not buy this book if you are looking for a comfortable or easy read about restoring and repairing motorcycles. Don't go in thinking it's a quick holiday read, or just a bit of fun - it'll require some serious work if you're unfamiliar with the debates, especially those in which the names of Marx, Smith, Heidegger, Polanyi, and others pop off of the workshop shelves.

With that in mind, I think that Crawford largely achieves what he sets out for himself. He argues that allowing workers to use their judgment provides them with greater happiness and provides non-monetary rewards. He asserts that giving workers objective standards, rather than the mealy-mouthed corporate speak of 'missions' and 'buy-in' allows workers to succeed or fail, and when they fail they better understand their success. He attacks college education for not including places where kids can go wrong, he argues that "The experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students... A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong." (p204) He laments the devaluation of genuine mastery, and is frustrated by "the easy fantasy of mastery [that] permeates modern culture." (p17) He believes, probably like many conservatives do, that modern consumer culture, with its emphasis on immediacy and short-termism, damages humanity and, "If the modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption, this is bound to affect our political culture." (p18) So he has many worries and many criticisms, and his proposed solution is what he calls 'progressive republicanism'. He argues that it should be progressive because "the defenders of free markets forgot that what we really want is free men" and thus "It is time to end the confusion of private property with corporate property" (p209). Furthermore, he argues that many politicians fail the electorate because, "Those who belong to a certain order of society - people to make big decisions that affect all of us - don't seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with failure, the kind that can't be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people." (pp203-4) I think that Crawford should have foreshadowed these rather radical statements earlier on, and that in the expectation of such conclusions many people might have read on to see exactly how he motivates such end results.

Notwithstanding the credit he gives to those whose work requires a physical engagement with a physical world, Crawford seems to miss one large fraction of the working population with his 'switch it on and see it work' nostrum for the value of the trades. Computer programmers have the same need, to 'switch on' (compile) their program and see it work. Others appreciate their product because it works for them every day, each hour. Yes, like poor craftsmanship there is poor programming, but good programming and database management have many similar characteristics to their physical brethren in the engineering, trades, and crafts. In my view, Crawford doesn't give programmers, and knowledge workers generally, sufficient credit for their good work, but derogates them for their poor work, and for the apathy and indolence of many of those who inappropriately do programming and IT work.

Additionally, when Crawford says, "Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right." (p20) By rights, then, many 'knowledge' tasks should be classified as 'crafts'. Should I not, when I spend hours before a computer trying to engage with data, dwelling on it for many hours, be classified as a craftsman trying to craft or model the correct, or most true, set of regressions? For me this differentiates academia from consultancy or an equivalent (Crawford dislikes consultancy and management greatly) - the ability to spend hours pondering one question, or one set of questions, in order to provide a rigorous and honest answer.

Though there may be a few shortcomings to the book, I think it was largely worth my while to read it and to engage properly with what Crawford sets out - an argument for smaller, responsible businesses and responsible, free workers, craftsmen and tradespeople, brought together in markets and allowed to engage in free exchange. Though his dream seems Utopian, and there are occasional flaws in his reasoning, the ideas are nonetheless clearly set out and often beautiful.
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on 6 September 2017
This book could be seen somewhere between philosophy, organizational psychology, management, life satisfaction and economics. It is quite interesting to read, and places the weight on the satisfaction of manual work. Even if I can follow the authors thoughts, I personally would think, that both intellectual as well as manual work can be very satisfying and rewarding. In my youth I have been in several factories, large ones, as smaller ones, on the different places of the production line, as well as doing health studies there. I was enjoying both to the same amount. Still many years later I really like both - the more intellectual part and the pure manual part and I would not want to exclude one of them. Humans got a brain and hands - so why not use both as well. I really enjoy the balance of thinking and doing some manual work and going to a Do It Yourself shop in a working overall. The book makes some good points, but for me it feels too one sided - on a personal level, as also on the level of society.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 December 2011
Crawford's book brings across a similar message to Pirsig's Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values - namely of the value of craft type work, and the intelligence required to go into it. In effect it is a renewed rallying call to devote more thought to one's career than the blind obeisance to college and office work that seems to be the prevalent mode today.

There is certainly a lot to be said for skilled craft work and the practitioners - the good ones, at least - can definitely boast of just as materially rich lives as white collar workers, and often have much more intrinsic satisfaction.

The author does an excellent job to bring the pleasures of skilled physical work across, based primarily on his own experience (with some literary refferences thrown in for good measure). Where he falls somewhat short is in his description of white collar, office work - it seems that his own experience prepared him poorly to adequately describe and judge it. In the main points he is of course right but you will get a much better examination of both Taylorist management methods, as well as problems of white collar jobs in something like Matthew's The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong.

At the end of the day the message transmitted is similar to Pirsig's, and whether you prefer this book or the Zen original will probably depend on your age, and exposure to / liking of philosophy. Both use it copiously but Pirsig seems to rely on it more heavily, and he tells the whole (based on his real life, of course) more through a story - a road trip - rather than in the completely non-fictionalised account of Crawford. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values also uses more complicated language and requires more concentration from the reader.

Overall definitely a book worth reading to give you an added perspective, just do not expect a nation of motorcycle repair shop mechanics to be the cure to the current economic woes - even if it may well provide the solution to a disgruntled individual office worker.
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on 4 October 2014
This book is well worth the effort needed to read it. It is not a lightweight holiday read... Early on the book is a little heavy but develops well and puts into perspective our industrial development. It shows how Henry Ford destroyed craftsmanship by separating thinking from doing; how his engineering of the production process was balanced by the engineering of consumption and easy credit to enslave workers to a life of unsatisfying work. Wind forward in time and see how the same creeping separation of thinking from doing is undermining the professional occupations, where graduates find themselves doing unsatisfying work in modern production-line offices. Individual flair, decisiveness and accountability is undermined by endless meetings where everyone is responsible and no one is responsible. Crawford points out the disconnects between modern life and the real world and shows how and why people can regain some meaning in their lives by working with their hands. If you want to read something that will make you think and re-evaluate how you spend your working life... Do yourself a favour, get yourself a copy, read it and think about the messages it contains. Who was it that said "The unexamined life is not worth living"?
Incidentally, the book has nudged me into making a decision to change my job... by pursuing an aspect of my of my profession as a mechanical engineer which I have in the past enjoyed for its creativity. Need I say more..?
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VINE VOICEon 17 November 2010
Crawford has two basic points in this book and he excels when he sticks to them:

1) The manual work ("the trades") is both physically and intellectually satisfying;
2) Any work that is process led (the thinking is done elsewhere) is soul destroying - white collar work is as susceptible to this as blue collar.

He does sometimes drift off from these points, and sometimes shows his ignorance when he pontificates about office life which he doesn't have much experience of.
He does correctly characterise the anomie and vagueness of modern office life.

However when he sticks to his main point he's superb - the book that this most strongly resembles (deliberately) is Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: 25th Anniversary Edition: An Inquiry into Values, this is more of an enquiry into work than values but they share a similar feel. The book is primarily interested in the Philosophy of work and quotes Heidegger and Aristotle to back up his case, so it's not light reading.

So an interesting read, but given that most blue and white collar work has been lobotomised and there probably isn't enough trade work to go around, I'm not sure where this leaves us. I'm pretty lousy with at shop class (or metal working as they called it at my school) and I don't think it's practical to expect everyone to fix motorcycles.
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on 13 April 2011
Very readable and as many of the reviews already available indicate, funny at times. I haven't read the entire work yet so my comments may be addressed within the rest of the book. I think that an important reason why so many industries such as the US (and UK) motoring industry have declined is because the cars and motorcycles they built were just not very good. Yes it is nice to tinker around when it is a hobby, but not if it's a wet Monday morning and you want to get to work. I do think the book makes some very valuable points and that there is a strong case made for not only manual work of this nature but for how we as nations plan for our future prosperity. This book is well worth its place in my collection.
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on 23 February 2013
This book is a treasure trove of wisdom and sage word on the state of work and workers in the world today. Reading this will not only open your eyes to something you might well already know in the workplace but also teach you valuable lessons. This is kind of book that I recommend to anyone when a topic of conversation could even be loosely related to it and the lessons from which I use regularly and try to impart on others.
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on 15 January 2016
Wonderful book. Some elements require rereading but that's not a negative, the ideas are worth reading twice for true understanding. One of the few books I know I'll read again and soon.
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on 2 April 2015
This is the same book as "The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good" - so don't buy the same book twice like I did.
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VINE VOICEon 22 July 2009
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord." -- 1 Corinthians 15:58

Imagine that you build sand castles for a living. It could be pretty frustrating. When the tide comes in, a wave will wash away all but the memory of your work. Or if the waves don't get you, a careless foot may. Alternatively, the wind will blow your castle down.

It's the nature of a very secular society to seek enormous satisfactions from work. After all, it's what we mostly do on Monday through Friday. Matthew Crawford describes his experiences and observations about how to gain pleasure and meaning from work. He does so from an unusual perspective. He has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago but prefers to repair old motorcycles.

After you go through the story of his working life, you'll be reminded of all those wonderful vignettes in Studs Terkel's book, Working. You don't have to be president of the United States to find work satisfying.

Mr. Crawford posits these kinds of qualities for making work meaningful:

1. You work on something you care about.
2. You come into contact with those whose lives will be affected by your work.
3. The nature of the tasks is inherently satisfying to you.
4. You get to solve difficult problems.
5. You develop expertise that makes the work more enjoyable and helpful.
6. You use creative thinking.
7. You are not bound by time, space, or quotas.

For much of the book, he describes in glowing terms how great motorcycle repair is for him . . . and some of the satisfactions of electrical work. He also takes Dilbert-like potshots at routine office work, particularly when it is done in an assembly-line-like fashion. From that platform, it would have been easy to describe many more kinds of work, describing what to seek out and what to avoid. But he held back from making such general points where they cried out to be made.

As a management consultant, I was fascinated to see that his view of management consulting was of something very theoretical and impractical. Having done this kind of work for over forty years, I would say management consulting work is often a great deal like motorcycle repair work . . . but without the skinned knuckles. The book would have been stronger if he had taken the time to do what Studs Terkel did and ask workers what they like and don't like about various occupations.

I do agree that exposure to physical work should emphasize appreciating the disciplines involved rather than just mastering some information, making an ornament for the home, or getting through a required course. It is a big mistake to downplay the various trades. Many of my happiest friends learned to be masters of various trades after finding little practical use for their liberal arts degrees.

To me, the biggest missed point related to the spirituality of work. Your job can be one of the ways that your worship the Lord and serve Him. Some pretty grubby work can feel great when you know that it's what the Lord wants you to be doing for Him: One of the most gratifying days of work in my life was digging latrines for an orphanage in Mexico where the children had no indoor plumbing.

Let me leave you with one word of caution: The book opens more slowly and less interestingly than it becomes. Stick with it for at least a hundred pages before deciding that you like or can't stand what's being described.
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