It’s often quite difficult to pick out a book; there’s just too much to choose from. Last week, under the gun to get to my gate, I begged help from a shop person and, I’ll be damned if she didn’t pick a winner. ShopClass As Soulcraft is a newish book by Matthew B. Crawford. The subtitle is “an inquiry into the value of work”. I guess it wasn’t too much of a risk, it’s a “notable” book by the New York Times, and a best seller. Still, I hadn’t heard any buzz about it.
Normally I don’t cotton to books about philosophy — too much abstract concept puts me to sleep. However, Crawford’s book about work really has the balance of conceptual thinking and rubber-meets-the-road-reality just right. This is a thoughtful book about something all to real in modern society — the disconnect between what we do, and who we are. I recall the 70′s faddish (but very good) book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Crawford’s book does cover some of the same ground, but it goes further, and it is just as timely to the reader in 2010 and Robert Pirsig’s book about values was to the readers of the 70′s.
Crawford’s essential message, and this is my spin on it, is that “work” has become to abstract for those of us who don’t work with our hands. How many of us know people, high level executives and other workaholics, who run marathons, or do something highly spiritual on their vacations or weekends? One reason is that it’s an effort to reconnect with something more real and tangible. As a society we’ve devalued jobs that require working with our hands and getting dirty. Schools routinely steer kids into college even when they have little aptitude, or, interest. I see this in the children of some of my friends, who have kinesthetic or mechanical talent, but that is pushed aside in favor of college prep, and white collar jobs.
Crawford is a Univ. of Chicago PhD in philosophy, and, he’s an electrician and motorcycle repair shop owner. He interweaves stories about his “physical” work and the various ethical and business decisions he makes in those more “mundane” roles that are quite intellectually nuanced.
In recent years the kind of skilled work Crawford admires has fallen out of fashion. Isn’t it interesting that “shop class” is being dropped from curricula all over the USA. Why? Do we have less need to make and repair things? Hardly. And yet, our worship of creative jobs ignores the inherent creativity in working with materials and machines. If we want a balanced economy, where we make things and sell them to others, then we’d better return to shop class, and return to a respect of the technologies that make our life easier and more interesting.
If you’ve been feeling a disconnect between what you do, and, well, your life, this book might be a real eye opener for you. I recommend it.