I found it impossible to read this book and not think about my own work as a product manager. As I read Sennett's descriptions of goldsmiths, glassblowers and Linux programmers, I examined the way I work. I asked myself how my work is similar to theirs. I questioned the way I work. I looked in the work of others for ways to improve my own.
Each chapter discusses a different aspect craftsmen and craftsmanship. Sennet draws on philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, science and history to examine each of the aspects. Each chapter asks a key question and sets out to find the answer. Sennet describes himself as a "philosophically-minded writer." While the writing is certainly philosophically driven, Sennet has a keen sense of narrative. In seeking out an answer he delves deep and moves across disciplines with grace, but also illustrates each of his points with a story from the history of a number of different crafts.
This book left me with a number threads that I want to follow further on my own. Although Sennet drew his own conclusions about the nature of craftsmanship, he's left his readers with a number of useful tools to start examining and improving their own craft.
There is nothing original here. William Morris wrote and spoke about how capitalism has caused a decline in craftsmanship over one hundred years ago. And as a previous reviewer has stated, there is nothing about Marx. I could only read half way through this book before giving in with it, so I don't know whether Morris was mentioned at all. But I doubt it and he should have been mentioned in the preface or introduction where credit should be given to previous works. Therefore in terms of philosophy and historical content, I give this book one star. Another reason why I could not read the full book is the way that the arguments are made and the written style. The author uses 1000 words where 10 would suffice. So, one star again for this.
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.
This is a really great book. A transformative work that might prove, in time, to be hugely influential. It's also a very enjoyable, fascinating, engaging, personal read.
What kind of book is it? I don't describe it as an exhaustive account of "craftwork", specific crafts now or historical. But it does contain a lot of interesting detail along such line, used for convincing effect. It is a philosophical book, deeply questioning our being in the world as physical beings making things and being made. It's not an entirely comprehensive account of philosophy's relationship with making (no discussion of Heidegger's Question Concerning Technology, no mention of the double meaning of Nietzsche's "philosophize with a hammer" and its double meaning, no mention of Deleuze and Guattari's "how to make yourself a body without organs" or their account of the handyman and the production of production). But that doesn't matter. The book works as a powerful intervention. Industrial fabrication of consumables, concepts and people has taken over. Philosophers in many cases have responded with vacuity (Sennett is a bit harsh on Arendt, but maybe its justified). Sennett brings us back down to earth and points out a whole area of human (and non-human) material existence that may well offer a different ethical route.
Dewey's (little read) Democracy and Education is a key starting point, although it doesn't become explicit until later on in the book. Sennett is in the pragmatist tradition. But he recognises the limitations of Dewey's account of experience (and its basis in material action). Sennett goes beyond Dewey, with a materialism that recognises the power of material and tools to instruct and inspire. This would link up well with the "vibrant materialism" explored by Jane Bennett in her recent book of Bergson, Deleuze, Guattari et al.
Would I recommend this? Yes, to anyone. It is a challenging read. But will provide plenty of material for you to work up into a new life and a new society.