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The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  1,746 ratings  ·  257 reviews
A groundbreaking new book from the bestselling author of Shop Class as Soulcraft

In his bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford explored the ethical and practical importance of manual competence, as expressed through mastery of our physical environment. In his brilliant follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford investigates the challenge of maste
Hardcover, 305 pages
Published March 31st 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Sean Lavery The text is somewhat dense. Here's a breakdown of what he's saying:

He's making two key statements with this book that work in tandem

1. The first revol…more
The text is somewhat dense. Here's a breakdown of what he's saying:

He's making two key statements with this book that work in tandem

1. The first revolves around what he calls freedom of attention. He explains that humans evolved with what he calls 'freedom of attention' - that is, the freedom to think about what we want to think about. He then explains that our default operating system leads us to contemplate a better life for ourselves, a better version of ourselves, and we strategize how to make these a reality. But with the rise of marketing (he explains that we started out with none, by the early 1900's we were seeing/hearing a few ads per day, by the 1960's it's estimated we were at roughly 500, and today it's closer to 5000), not to mention increasingly ubiquitous and addictive entertainment, we are losing our freedom of attention and this is costing humanity.

2. He then launches into a long history of organ making (the instrument) which can be summed up by saying that they made them well, tried progressive methods, thought they worked, realized they didn't, and reverted to old/superior methods - all to illustrate the message that progress is not linear. This illustration is his second major statement and ties in well with our disappearing freedom of attention.

What he is essentially saying is that we are losing true human freedom in the name of economic and technological progress. But progress is not linear and it will soon be clear that these things we view - at first glance -
as forms of progress are actually setting us behind in other ways.

I do wish the book was somewhat easier to read - he definitely toes the line between pop-philosophy and academic philosophy. But he's saying something very important and I do think the book will end up being recognized as an important and timely work decades from now.(less)

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May 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
“Genuine connection to others shows up in the vivid colors of defiance and forgiveness, reverence and rebellion, fighting and fucking: the real stuff.”
― Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head


I read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work years ago and loved it. I was enamored of his story. His last book was about excellence, work, education, and engaging in a philosophy of work and empowering the type of education that enables students to have choices beyond the Ivo
Stephen Buggy
Apr 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Oh dear! He's talking about me isn't he?

More tough going than The Case for Working With Your Hands, but still very rewarding. Basically Matthew B. Crawford is Ron Swanson with about 50 more IQ points and without the Libertarianism.

I am afraid to give a summary of this book because I know I will fail to give it justice, but here goes nothing.

In short this book is about the politics of distraction. Crawford makes a convincing case that our failure to give attention to the world and to instead rel
Emma Sea
Sep 27, 2015 rated it it was ok
Reviewer Matthew Trevithick said, "This book is close to being quite good." I'd agree.

There was a lot more hard philosophy than I anticipated. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it did lead me to start the book in the wrong frame of mind. Do I blame the cover copy? The title?

The section on gambling was interesting. The end section on restoring pipe organs nearly drove me out of my tiny mind.

The book didn't feel like a whole, but more like a series of connected themes, separated by reflecti
May 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
What's remarkable about this book is the lengths to which Matthew B. Crawford goes in order to draw conclusions that are fairly unremarkable.

What begins as a book about the demands placed on our depleted supply of attention actually turns out to be a book about freedom. Tim Keller has (quite accurately, I think) noticed that modern people value freedom more than goodness. But Crawford points out that our current definition of freedom is one that suggests the human will is the strongest force in
Matthew Trevithick
Mar 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars. Like the other comments say, this book is close to being quite good, but clearly needed a tougher editor - the guiding idea (which is generally that our attention is the most precious resource we have, but it's increasing exploited - not exactly a breakthrough, but his observations on fixing this are interesting) is a strong one, but it's watered down whenever the book loses focus, which happens quite a bit. The book does get off to a very strong start, but as I continued reading, the ...more
Apr 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
For me, a millennial and highly prone to intuition, this book was therapeutic. Crawford lays out through a history of ideas and practices how we have lost our attention to the world. And his prescription is a heavy dose of tradition and work that forces extension of our agency and genius in the physical world.
Charles J
Nov 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Attacks on digital technology for destroying our capacity for attention are a dime a dozen. Despite its title, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is not such an attack. It is far more ambitious. Somewhat to my surprise, it is a direct assault on the Enlightenment for ruining the habits of mind and practice that lead to human flourishing. Crawford says modern man is subject to delusions, birthed by the Enlightenment, that diffuse our perception of the world in a fog of unreality. He th ...more
Dec 25, 2016 rated it it was ok
You'll see some one-star reviews claiming boredom or two-star reviews claiming too much "hard philosophy." This book is neither.

What it rather is, is a series of almost interesting conclusions that are brilliantly ran away from lest the author gets too close to actually making a hard point. Perhaps most supportive of this observation is Crawford's "Epilogue" in which he admits that his treatment is only partial and seems to think that since philosophy is really just a method of figuring things o
Anna Keating
Apr 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I cannot say enough good things about this book. Loved it.

Re-reading it 2 years later... that's how much I enjoyed this book.
Carol Bakker
Oct 17, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Carol Bakker by: Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio Journal
Crawford's thoughts are at a higher altitude than mine. From time to time the clouds disappeared and I got a clear view of his point (and loved it); but there was a lot of mist and fog that obscured my ability to follow the argument. My problem, not his. I wonder (but not very long) if a second reading would yield more 'aha' moments.

I happily gleaned from several highly excellent chapters. My favorite, by far, was the chapter about pipe organ makers in Virginia. If you play the organ, love the o
Apr 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
Do yourself a favor and just read the epilogue. I've read two of Crawford's books and finally have to say that he is one of the most obtuse writers I've ever read. Smart. Great ideas. But he manages to write in the most uninteresting way. It's such a plodding task to keep reading that he must have felt it, too. Every section ends with a recapitulation and you wonder, "Why didn't you just say that in the first place?"
Aug 04, 2018 rated it liked it
A somewhat mixed bag. Every once in a while an interesting idea would pop out. I appreciate his critique of subjectivism. He also makes good points about the recent sanitization of children’s TV programs — it’s become about respecting an expression of personal feelings, rather than making observations about reality — an avoidance of conflict. The rant about pipe organs seemed to have no purpose.

Generally Crawford is too verbose, in a bad way -- prone to using 4 words where 2 will do. I suspect h
Nick Klagge
Jun 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
I ended up not liking this book very much. It's a little tough to put my finger on exactly why. First, I got interested in it because of a "preview" article published by the author in the NYT (, which, while dealing with issues that I find interesting and claiming that it was "adapted" from TWBYH, has virtually nothing to do with it. In fact, TWBYH seems like a return to Crawford's standard topic that it can be good to work with your hands. (I haven't rea ...more
Craig Werner
The central idea of this book is that we are suffering from a set of concentrated assaults on "the attentional commons." Everywhere you look (or listen), there's a barrage of pseudo-information designed to claim your consciousness. While acknowledging the digital dimension of the assault, Crawford asserts convincingly that the problem is much broader and has deep roots in philosophy and political economy. When we conceive of ourselves and our freedom in terms of radical autonomy and repudiate al ...more
Feb 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you get that sensation that something just isn't right with all the TVs blaring and music constantly bombarding you in the airport or coffee shop or bar, or the ads coming up on social media, or the displays you literally have to go around when you're in the supermarket.....then this book is for you.

My five star review is more subject than objective. I am just being more upfront about the matter with you.

This is my introduction to the works of Mr. Crawford, and it won't be my last. I will put
Jess Dollar
Apr 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was a challenging book to read. My husband asked me what it was about and I said I didn't know. And I was at that moment reading the last chapter of the book! But although I can't sum it up, I really did enjoy it.
I have a personal, deep hatred for CNN/TV news in airports (and other public places), so to read someone else addressing this and the ways in which our public spaces have been taken over with "noise" was really great.
I also really loved his dissection of Mickey Mouse cartoons, pa
James Murphy
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Matthew Crawford says at one point his book is about attention. In the final chapter he calls it political philosophy. In his "Introduction" he'd called it an attempt at philosophical anthropology and an ethics of attention in that his primary interest is in finding ways we can best express ourselves outside our cultural moment filled with such things as television, urban cacophony, and our digital technology. That it stresses the need for individuals to concentrate on their preferences away fro ...more
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Crawford has been to a million interesting places inside and outside his head, he brings us along, and we get to see everything in fresh new ways.
Matt Schiavenza
Jan 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
These days, there may be no more valuable commodity than silence. Consider your daily routine: Everything you touch and see is branded with advertising, and the Internet, now ubiquitous because of smartphones, bombards you with text, images, and videos designed to prompt and entice you.

In this book, the social critic Matthew Crawford describes this bombardment as profoundly alienating and something that takes us away from what makes us essentially human: using tools to master practices that crea
Iancu S.
Jun 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A superb book. To me, what made it unprecedented, is the balance between defending an intellectual thesis - that our methodological individualism (think of the liberal individual pursuing his *own* preferences) is scientifically inaccurate - and outlining a (non-patronizing) set of recommendations for life, focused on engagement with the external world (think of the way in which a musician's will must yield to the reality of the instrument -the hardness of the wood, the tuning, the tension of th ...more
Brandon Forsyth
Dec 07, 2014 rated it it was ok
This one was a bit of a slog. Crawford writes in very dense language, and suffers from trying to generalize too often, making sweeping statements where a simple conclusion will do. I was intrigued by his thoughts on carving out distraction-free zones in public areas, and his profile of an organ manufacturer at the end of the book is beautifully lyrical (and specific), but everything in between just sort of lost me. There are some very interesting ideas in here, and I left the book thoughtful and ...more
Feb 02, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: psychology
3.5 stars. Ambitious and oddly original but does not deliver the punch of insight I was hoping for. That said, I would read it again in a few gulps after doing it the first time quite slowly. One can see that each chapter was loved and labored over and Crawford is skilled at generating reader excitement about other people's books and ideas--a noble and welcome skill in a writer. I would recommend it to some, but not many, though I would be quick to give it to anyone with an interest in embodied ...more
Aug 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
I liked this book a lot, although I think it could have been better organized/edited - at times I felt that he strayed a bit far from his lane, and I'm not sure his protracted discussions of Kant added much if anything to his argument. Still, I think he addresses a critical challenge in any age: how to make adults. His solution, skilled physical labor, is a novel one and definitely one I've incorporated into my own life.
Nov 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow, it took me two years to read this book! Its not a hard read, I am just easily distracted. I found some of this book to be revolutionary for my personal life and understanding. Specifically the way the Crawford explodes the enlightenment myth of working from a blank page. If we are all individuals, rational and with choice, then we can do anything ... what do you want to do begins with a blank page. "a heroic process of open-ended, ultimately groundless self-making.”

In contrast, he is arguin
Michael Philliber
I have tried for years to fathom where we are in our present-day location. As I look beyond the geopolitical commotions to the normal, day-in-and-day-out state of affairs, I find it alarming how easily distracted we’ve become, and the ways disruption has taken over our mental, visual, and audio space. Why is that, how did we get here, and is there a viable way forward? Matthew Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, fabricator of compo ...more
Chelsea Lawson
May 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book- it was an excellent piece of social commentary, similar to How To Do Nothing, that balanced philosophical musing, social analysis, and practical advice. The basic idea is that people thrive when they are situated- that is, when they are in a particular place, with particular people and a particular purpose (if only for that moment). This idea is in opposition to our cultural idolization of the "individual," or the "rational agent," where the mind essentially exists in ...more
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am 100% in favour of this.
Matthew Crawford is best known (as far as I know) for The Case for Working With Your Hands but for some reason I never got around to that. The title of this one just spoke to me though. It's a kind of practical philosophy - an attempt to highlight how we have absorbed a worldview that is biased toward seeing individuals as just that - individuals, who are fully independent of others and uninfluenced by the world. And that, paradoxically, this makes us less resistant t
Taighe Selwood
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Overall, a great book that lays out the problem of constantly being a target for consumer attention. Crawford provides thoughts on what it means to become an individual, rather than a passive, abstract observer. By actively participating in the world around you, and in some larger community (be it of skilled organ makers or race car drivers), one is able to assert their own mark. Asserting this mark is only possible after one has developed the ability/skillset to effectively and meaningfully eng ...more
Russell Fox
Matthew Crawford's previous book, his first, was Shop Class as Soulcraft, and it was easily the best non-fiction book I read in 2009. It was a dense, but never difficult, inquiry--by way of motorcycle repair, political economy, a history of the manual trades, and a good deal of Hedieggerian phenomenology (though he didn't use that term when making those arguments)--into what modern human beings are missing when they privilege modes of work that are abstract and organized around universally pract ...more
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Matthew B. Crawford is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He also runs a (very) small business in Richmond, Virginia.

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“Think of the corporate manager who gets two hundred emails per day and spends his time responding pell-mell to an incoherent press of demands. The way we experience this, often, is as a crisis of self-ownership: our attention isn’t simply ours to direct where we will, and we complain about it bitterly. Yet this same person may find himself checking his email frequently once he gets home or while on vacation. It becomes effortful for him to be fully present while giving his children a bath or taking a meal with his spouse. Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.” 8 likes
“Psychologists have suggested that attention may be categorized by whether it is goal-driven or stimulus-driven, corresponding to whether it is in the service of one’s own will or not.” 6 likes
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