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Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

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A philosopher/mechanic's wise (and sometimes funny) look at the challenges and pleasures of working with one's hands

Called "the sleeper hit of the publishing season" (The Boston Globe), Shop Class as Soulcraft became an instant bestseller, attracting readers with its radical (and timely) reappraisal of the merits of skilled manual labor. On both economic and psychological grounds, author Matthew B. Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a "knowledge worker," based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing. Using his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford presents a wonderfully articulated call for self-reliance and a moving reflection on how we can live concretely in an ever more abstract world.

241 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Matthew B. Crawford

7 books260 followers
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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Displaying 1 - 29 of 1,392 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
404 reviews2,196 followers
November 19, 2017
It was at times a bit idealistic, but the points that Crawford makes are more often than not valid and worthy of contemplation. He does seem prone to sweeping statements rather than simple conclusions, but aren't we all?

The main hypothesis is that thinking and doing are inseparable from each other. And our modern life is obsessed with attempting to separate them. This causes an unnecessary psychic distancing between ourselves and our work value, which in turn affects our fulfillment.

I greatly enjoyed his personal account of working as an electrician and mechanic. The notes in the back, marked throughout the book, were both useful references and contained great anecdotal stories that enhanced the overall book. I would recommend reading them in-line with the main text.
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
597 reviews555 followers
November 22, 2010
I’m always wondering why I work (aside from that whole food and shelter thing), so books that try to answer that question draw my attention. While said attention was utterly wasted on Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, it reaped rich rewards from Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, a thoughtful, synthetic, opinionated exploration of manual labor.

Crawford argues that society undervalues working with your hands, and that physically manipulating the world demands as much intellectual rigor and is as fulfilling as any other profession, if not more so. He could have ended there, with some polemic about the irrelevance of higher education (and he certainly touches on that), but luckily Crawford isn’t so provincial, and explores the implications of this assertion quite a bit.

There’s a whole lot going on in this book, but here are the three ideas that I found most compelling:

1) Tacit knowledge is as important as explicit (encodable) knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is what you know but can’t communicate, succinctly summed up by the phrase, “you had to be there.” (I learned about this in grad school while reading an excellent essay on the destruction of knowledge related to nuclear weapons in Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change) Crawford argues repeatedly that such knowledge is ignored or misunderstood as something that can be replicated by procedure or machines, and I absolutely agree. I see this kind of knowledge in a coworker’s uncanny ability to debug something I’ve struggled with for hours given only a handful of symptoms. I also see it in an experienced naturalist’s ability to identify a weird bug “by gestalt,” or see things in nature that I can’t, even when we’re looking at exactly the same scene. It's also the kind of thing that's difficult to ascertain in a job interview, but is potentially more important than the explicit forms of knowledge that are easily discernible.

2) Some forms of cognition are only possible through physical manipulation.

Actually, I think Crawford goes further and claims cognition that isn’t directly related to the physical world is misguided. He rags on theory quite a bit. I sympathize with his tirade against a society that aspires to be a bunch of disembodied heads in jars, but I think he goes too far in equating all theorists to the absent-minded professors he derides. However, I totally agree with the underlying notion that doing is a form of thinking. When I’m on the squash court (let’s imagine I still play squash), my mind is alive with angles, velocities, and probabilities that are categorically different than their mathematical equivalents (it is also filled with rage. Don't get me started...). I imagine the same is true of musical performance. Thought is far more than simply getting lost in your own mind.

3) Work demonstrates the existence of reality by forcing us to engage objects and forces outside our control (i.e. real things). It also demonstrates our own reality when we alter this external world in ways that can be verified by others.

Crawford rails against corporate cultures that enshrine relativistic values like “being a team player,” “positive thinking,” or “creativity.” Manual labor, by contrast, provides a more nuanced understanding of your own capabilities and ultimately more self respect, because it forces you to engage with things outside of your control, like the physical world, or the idiosyncrasies of Japanese motorcycle engineers. “Good” to a motorcycle repairman means the bike is running. There’s no way to redefine that value, and its truth can be proven by anyone.

I disagree that this kind of engagement is exclusive to working with your hands, but I think the point is excellent: work that touches the world is the cure for solipsism. It provides an invaluable sense of reality that the self-conscious mind needs (well, mine does). If you’re evaluated based on subjective traits, you never know where you stand, and what you’ve accomplished can always be taken away from you by redefinition. Furthermore, your work demonstrates your reality even more when you're connected to the people who it affects. A customer waiting for his bike to be fixed generates far more poignancy than some distant consumer who may or may not drink the soda produced by the machines your underling's underling's underling's underling oversaw.

So, given all that, what would Crawford think of my job, or my life? I generally am not “the master of my own stuff,” and predominantly live in my own head. My primary engagements with the physical world are through cooking, which I assiduously avoid doing in objective (i.e. social) contexts where my food could attain maximum reality, and nature study, which is occasionally tactile, but largely mitigated by a camera lens (and somewhat motivated by a Web-based attention market).

However, though he might not recognize it as such, my profession of software engineering is far more akin to motorcycle repair than the kind of subjective perception management he sees in most white collar work. I do make things that real people use, and I am connected to those people. It’s just that the things I make and the connections to the people I make them for are not physical (Howard Rheingold made an important point that "virtual" communities are not virtual in that they aren't real, they're just not physical, though I can't remember if I read that or if he said it in a class). I don’t have the advantage of tactile experience with my subject matter, but I am constantly struggling against systems I did not design and over which I have no control (like Internet Explorer). I operate within constraints, and my work is never perfect, but improves iteratively, and experience grants me both tacit and explicit understanding of successful practices and patterns. Our company culture is a lot more like the shop crew Crawford lauds than the corporate team he despises, perhaps due to the same ability to point to objective reality as the ultimate proof of value. My coworker might, say, have a disturbing obsession with cats, but man, that comment plugin he wrote is seamless, and we never have to fix it.

The book isn’t perfect by any means. Crawford occasionally resorts to some distasteful rhetorical techniques, like pushing conservative buttons (“With its reverence for neutral process, liberalism is, by design, a politics of irresponsibility” (p. 45)), or choosing a single example of his opposition then spending pages lambasting it (I’m thinking particularly of his critique of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class a few pages later on p. 47; maybe it was a bad day). Most of his historical segments also seem to rely heavily on a few, secondary sources (Harry Braverman, T.J. Jackson Lears, Robert Jackall), a practice that doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Overall, though, this was exactly the kind of considered, informed analysis I wanted, and while I didn’t always agree with Crawford on every point, those points were excellent provocation to further consideration, and I admire him for stating his opinions openly.
Profile Image for Rob.
17 reviews21 followers
November 5, 2009
Finished. It failed to redeem itself.

In general terms, any book which can be summarized as "A treatise on the moral an intellectual virtues of this practice, which I happen to participate" is worthy of some skepticism, but when the subtext might further read "Justifying my life decisions" then you know you're in trouble. This book jumps into this category with both feet.

I won't say there are no good ideas in here - the thesis that there is much value to be found in "real" work is one I wholeheartedly support - but this book is mostly wasted space. There is material for a REALLY good essay in here that has been spun out and unnecessarily padded to make an entire book.

It is the very quality of this thesis which renders the book so maddening. Every time he comes within sight of a topic that might take the book outside the narrow sphere of justifying his own choices, the matter is touched on briefly, then discarded in favor of the author's experiences, which are interesting, but offer little in the way of real insight.

As the author presented his thesis I was full of excitement - this could spill into discussion of the resurgence of maker culture, the growth of open source, the hacker ethos and so many other vibrant modern movements that celebrate this idea of making and working with real things. Sadly, it was not to be, and these experiences are apparently limited solely to the author and those whose work he understands and participates in.

In places, they even work against him. One of the brighter points of the text is a dissection of corporate team-building, which is promptly undercut by his tales of his own white collar experience, presented as typical. If you had a college degree and were making 23k a year in Silicon Valley in the 90's, you were not a white collar worker, you were a rube - you could have made more working at Taco Bell. The kind of place that treated workers that way would naturally be exactly the worst kind of environment, and while I'm sorry the author ended up in that situation, he's extrapolated a lot from it.

All this might be forgivable if this was a primarily biographical text, but it's not. It's a polemic, and not a very good one. Elements of biography are used well, but then they are used as launching points for rants supporting the author's pet political, social and philosophical ideals.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it very successfully refactors a lot of The Communist Manifesto into modern terminology. That sounds facetious, I know - comparing the author's works with Marx seems like an idea out of left field - but it's an almost inescapable conclusion in parts. The author's own citations of Marx and his supporters suggest this may be intentional (it would be more troubling if it was not) but the disdain for intellectuals coupled with the strong emphasis of the strong moral virtues of the worker (a specific sort of worker, in fact) make the comparison inescapable.

A number of reviews also left me with the impression that there would be some treatment of the role and value of vocational education. This is simply not the case, which is intensely disappointing. This seems to be one of those books that makes a great summary and is frequently reviewed on the strength of that summary, rather than the far weaker book it represents.
Profile Image for Mary.
106 reviews12 followers
August 18, 2009
With each word of this book, I want to jump up and yell, "Huzzah!"
I found myself frequently laying the book down and staring out the window, contemplating how wonderful it is to work with one's hands, and more importantly, to learn from another human being, to learn things that cannot be manualized or codified.
I am reminded of CS Lewis' essay "Good Work and Good Works" in which he says that the only jobs that are worth doing are the things that people would do for themselves if they didn't have a professional to do it for them. Most of today's office jobs are essentially just like the factory jobs of yesteryear: what matters is not your skill set or particular talents, but how well you fit as a cog in the machine of the company.
Work should be engaging, productive, satisfying, and lifelong. This is the type of book that's capable of changing enough minds to really make this happen. Read it!
97 reviews5 followers
August 6, 2009
I really wanted to like this book. I read an excerpt and really enjoyed it. The first half was pretty good, and had some interesting things to say about the nature of work and the value of satisfaction. But by the end of the book, the author just comes across as a giant douchebag who needs to justify to himself why he wasted years getting a PhD in philosophy when what he really wanted to do was fix motorcycles. I think he has a great point that there is a great deal of value in hands-on work (labor, trades, craftwork), and that it's under-appreciated right now, and a lot of people might be happier working in a trade than an office.
But, the second half was desperately boring--I skimmed whole chapters and still felt like it was a waste of my time--and basically came down to GRR I'm A Man I Am Such A Manly Man Because I Fix Motorcycles And Get My Hands Dirty and Make Dirty Jokes oh and just ignore my philosophy degree because that's not masculine enough Oh Did I Mention I'm A Man? Yeah, you have a dick, I get it. This already-thin book would have been much improved with some serious editing.
I'm also leaving aside most of my more substantive criticism since I don't have the book in front of me to quote. But briefly, he just comes across as naive and ignorant about anyone else's experience besides his own. For all his talk about class and status, he comes across as awfully ignorant about the realities of life for many people in the US. Finally, any discussion of work in today's world that completely ignores women and the role of work in women's lives (except for the obligatory paragraph dismissal of sexual harassment as something that only bothers people because they're status-conscious and not satisfied with their work) just isn't relevant in today's world.
In summary: interesting concept, terrible execution, reads more like a BA thesis than a serious exploration of the value of work.
3 reviews4 followers
July 16, 2010
I really liked the idea behind this book (or at least what I thought the idea would be from the book cover) - which defended jobs that require real, measurable work over the "information" or "knowledge" work that is so common today. My initial impression was that this could even be targeted towards the high-school student deciding what career to pursue - and after reading a number of technical books, I was looking forward to some lighter reading for a vacation.
However, this book started and ended highly philosophically (with plenty more in the middle) - not the easy read that I was looking for. At other times, the author would speak more plainly about some of his work as an electrician or mechanic - which was both interesting and written very well.
In the end, I think that the information on the cover misrepresented the book and in general I find myself very frustrated with authors that write things in very complicated ways that could very easily be written in straightforward language, so I was not a big fan of this one.
Profile Image for Caroline.
222 reviews10 followers
March 29, 2015
This was such a disappointment. I read a New York Times Sunday Magazine article that was a summary of this book a number of years ago when it first came out. I really liked the article and immediately added the book to my "to read" list. I only now got around to it.

I hated it. HATED it.

I thought Crawford was a sexist blowhard with weak arguments that contained almost no evidentiary support. In order to make said arguments appear slightly more legitimate, he dressed them up in fancy philosophical gobbledegook that just served to slow down the reader.

Instead of providing evidence from surveys, academic research, or even experts about the positive aspects of the trades, Crawford spent a lot of time whining about how he personally found white-collar work to be soul-sucking. His arguments were grounded in philosophy (which I suppose makes sense, as he has a PhD in the subject from the University of Chicago), which is a subject that I admit often leaves me cold. I care about how working (or not working) in the trades affects real human beings, not hypothetical ones. I want to know how the trades fit into the economy, not how they fit into a philosophical theory.

I also found the book to be quite sexist. At the outset, I was disappointed to find no mention of the gender imbalance and difficulties that women often face entering the trades. When I reached the book's end, I realized that it was laughable to have expected such a treatment of gender in the trades, as Shop Class as Soulcraft has much bigger problems in that arena. Crawford spends quite a bit of book talking about how much better it was back in the day when men were manly and had manly jobs and could partake in manly team building through obscene jokes and hazing. Maybe it was because of this explicit "rah rah" for stereotypical construction site behavior, but his complaints about white-collar work felt implicitly sexist. One example: white-collar work forces manly men to engage in wimpy, sanitized team-building activities. I'm not the biggest fan of forced team building either, but seriously? That's one of your arguments?

The sexism issue aside, I think I would have found this book much more compelling if it had been approached differently. Instead of denigrating traditional office work, Crawford could have talked about why the trades were worthwhile. I did genuinely enjoy the chapter where Crawford talks about the personal satisfaction he found solving a particularly challenging mechanical problem in a motorcycle he was trying to fix. However, I think that kind of satisfaction can be found in professional work as well. As someone who enjoys her own office job, I don't think it's reasonable to make assumptions about an entire population of occupations based on a sample size of one person, which is exactly what Crawford does, choosing himself as his sample.

I was (and still am) really sympathetic to the idea that the trades are a worthwhile career option and a needed alternative to white-collar work. I just think Crawford did a terrible job of trying to making such an argument. These two types of work can and should be judged independently of each another. Should you feel the same, I'd suggest seeking out another book.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
March 19, 2019
Despite the fact that I 100% agree with Crawford on 90% of the book (his thoughts about modernity, the future of jobs, free market capitalism, and the fact that we are meant to work with our hands), the book sounded like an empty polemic. Plus, he's sexist as hell. How do you write a whole book about what it means to be a human and work and only talk about stereotypically men's work. What about care work? Cooking? Childcare? Not just that, but when he talks about what's wrong with the current work environment, he talks about the "matriarchal" (in a bad way) link to the manufacturer's will, he talks about the feminization of the work place, how office politics is like a group of girls, how boys can't be treated as boys. That's all fine, but women have been working with their F&*%ing hands for centuries (even if he can believe it, before the industrial era). It just wasn't paid work. If you're going to write such a vast and angry screed against modernity, maybe go bigger and think about your gendered view of work. Just skip this one and read Bullshit jobs by Graeber
Profile Image for Brian.
601 reviews6 followers
February 26, 2011
What a disappointment this book was .....

I cannot imagine that anyone who ever took a shop class in high school could possibly have enjoyed this book. It was so full of over-analytical philosophizing by a Ph.D. in Philosophy who decided to quit the "think tank" rat race of academia to run a shop doing motor cycling repair. I applaud him for knowing what he really wanted to do and then actually doing it. And even though he lists his reasons for writing the book in the next to the last chapter (something I kept pondering as I slugged through this laborious text), I still don't think I really know why he wrote this book, which is disappointing to me.

I was interested to learn about the birth of shop class in the early 20th century, but the changes in higher education opportunities associated with the G.I. Bill of 1945 and their eventual impact on college bound curriculum of high school students is something the author didn't discuss, which surprised me.

I was also curious about the fact that the author didn't trash the engineers who designed things that are difficult or impossible to fix. I kept expecting this to show up every time I started a new chapter, but he never discussed it and I still don't know why. About the only people the author had any respect for were laborers in the building trades and mechanics that fix broken equipment. It would have made more sense to me if the author denigrated the engineers that design buildings and machinery, for designing them to be overly complicated. But he never did, and I still can't figure out why.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,838 followers
January 30, 2019
This book appalled me, even though the premise is wonderful: a reminder to enjoy work that changes the world in a tangible way--work that uses tools and is done with your hands instead of your mind. Great!

But almost every reference in the book has to do with Men Finding Meaning. About the only reference to a woman at work is a single paragraph where the omnipresent "he" in this book turns to a "she," and "she" is baking with a Betty Crocker cake mix. "She" never gets to do electrical work, or motorcycle repair, or any of the other trades in this book. Just faux-baking. It feels as if the author has never actually thought about the possibility of a woman picking up a socket wrench.

A worse sin to me, however, is that Crawford never acknowledges that women (mostly it's women in these roles) are physically changing the world all the time with their hands. I have to wonder why the work many women do on top of their regular jobs, of cooking, cleaning, and caring for family, and of fixing things at home to be more pleasant and/or just to function, doesn't register at all with Crawford as "soulcraft." Traditional women's work doesn't make the grade in this book as meaningful labor whereas it seems to me to be deeply meaningful.

Indeed, in a half-assed way the author inadvertently allowed me to reclaim physical labor I do with my hands every day as meaningful labor. I am reminded that I should take more pleasure in this work than I have done in the past. Rather than resent the cooking and cleaning and caring--the things that my education has taught me to disparage and resent--I have come to a realization that since these things must be done, I should do them well. All these thoughts came about in spite of the author rather than because of him, though.

So even though the message of the book had none of this in it, I'm glad to have read it, because I have begun to value this labor of mine more than I did before. My guess is Crawford's wife is doing all the housework for him and that's possibly the reason he doesn't know about its value. Let's hope she gets to write a book about her work experiences, too.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews624 followers
November 9, 2009
I was intrigued enough by Matthew Crawford's essay in the NYT magazine to read his entire book, which is called Shop Class as Soulcraft. Imagine an extended meditation, by someone with a Ph.D. who has extensively studied the ancient Greek philosophers, about the meaning of happiness as it relates to finding a satisfying job in the modern world. He has a snappy writing style that might remind you of Michael Kinsley or Sam Harris. There are two groups of people who might want to read the whole book instead of the excerpt linked above: people who aren't sure what to do with their lives and people who enjoy mastering skills.

Crawford's discussion skids all over the place and occasionally the book reads like an extended apology for his weird career trajectory. But it feels as though he has pinpointed something elementally true about modern office work and the way it can deprive you of a sense of accomplishment and stability. He identifies the trades (auto repair, plumbing, etc.) as a place where a certain kind of satisfying mastery can be experienced--the feeling of having tried your skill against something unyielding and outside yourself until you have achieved objectively measurable results. While I am not mechanically inclined, he gives other examples that are exactly the kind of thing that I find worthwhile: learning a language or musical instrument, trying to ice-skate, and so forth. These are activities at which it is possible to fail--in fact, you are almost guaranteed to fail at first.

The author isn't trying to convince you to become a motorcycle mechanic, like he is, or to reform the education system to raise a new generation of globalization-bucking plumbers. It's thought-provoking and occasionally irritation-provoking. I think it struck a nerve with me because Crawford's point is an elaborate version of one I often try to make. Sometimes leaving a seemingly exciting environment (think tank/literary publishing) for one that seems humble by contrast (workshop/library) makes a lot of sense.

Very interesting, but you can get a lot of the point just from reading the NYT excerpt.
Profile Image for Milan.
275 reviews2 followers
April 8, 2023
Reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford reminded me of my then fascination with Marx in college. The dignity of labor and the ills of capitalism were very captivating topics to read and discuss. It went something like this: create new wants - people will want more money to buy things - they will work more - borrow more - the rich will keep getting richer.

In this book, the author talks about the value of work and what works means to different people. Crawford argues that society undervalues working with hands, and overvalues the so-called knowledge work. Though the writing can get tiring sometimes, he makes a few interesting points:

• Work is not just about earning, but also about finding meaning.
• People who work by hands feel pride in their work while those who are employed by the companies as white collar workers usually have no pride or sense of accomplishment.
• "Craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake."
• Henry ford's assembly model has been detrimental to the workers as it has created a separation of thinking from doing.
• It’s very difficult to do meaningful work when you are working for someone else.
• The consumer culture has made us discarding functioning things for the shiny new objects.
• Corporates "desire for a mass of human resources," as they are exploitable because they are undifferentiated.
• Our work should be engaging, satisfying and productive.
Profile Image for J.
372 reviews43 followers
June 6, 2010
I grew up in a working class family. Throughout my childhood, Dad always had me working at his side completing various project and side-jobs. He saw the beauty in his children being to work with their hands and believed it was the best hedge against starving to death. He had a strong work ethic and loved to tinker around his shop. He also drew great satisfaction in seeing a job come to completion and admired ingenuity over wealth. There was a certain beauty attached to something that came out of the creative process arising out of some tangible need called for by the task at hand.

While I protested all the way and failed to appreciate the process, I do recall the sense of accomplishment that came at the completion of whatever job we were doing. I have come to appreciate the wisdom of my Dad's' unrelenting insistence that I learned how to work with my hands.

Matt Crawford makes some excellent arguments for earning a living with your hands. Crawford is an academic but he hasn't forgotten where he came from. He was an electrician who worked his way through university. His education culminated with a PhD after completing his baccalaureate studies in the hard science of Physics.

To some, his decision to step down from the pinnacle of working in a high powered think tank in order to pursue his love of tinkering with motorcycle repair, was sheer folly.

I disagree.

Crawford experienced the sense of accomplishment and gratification associated with working with his hands. In this book, he honors people who earn a living by the sweat of their brow.

He makes a cogent argument that intelligence and vocation are not mutually exclusive. It is particularly impressive that he could be be so articulate in honoring the workers whose contributions are so necessary in any society. He doesn't dumb down the writing because he reflects what blue collar workers know; they are not dumb.

Unfortunately, social demands and value placed on 'brain powered' jobs tends to marginalize the people who are the back bone of this nation. It is no longer a commonplace notion that high merit should be placed on physical labor. The result for such convention is creation of a world where the predictable outcome is standardized and made ever more precise using measurable data, true craftsmanship and ingenuity are slowly being diminished in the interest of progress.

While I can proclaim my deep sense of satisfaction to be linked with creation, and working with my hands is an integral part of my life, I would be remiss if I did not add this caveat; we live in a mean world.

You see, banks don't give a damn about how good I feel about working with my hands. They tend to rank my credibility in the world according to whether I can pay my debts. That attendant value associated with work earned by sweat of the proverbial brow is substantially lower than say, work done by day traders, doctors, lawyers and actors.

I suppose the most frustrating issue for me is that - like most people who have traveled this road of subsistence versus the path lined with monetary success - is that it is tough to make a sour grapes argument. Plainly put; it sucks to be poor.

I want more and I want to enjoy a life where I am disencumbered enough to do what I really love and that is to be a writer. The upside is I have my dreams. The down side of it is that I have to pay my bills.

Dividing my time between what is necessary and what I desire is what life is all about. Meanwhile, I bust my butt every day in order to meet whatever demands I deemed important at some earlier time in life - important enough that I committed my name to dotted lines.

Undoubtedly, the sense of accomplishment I feel - whenever I create a piece of furniture, complete a remodel, build a beautiful door or gate or some stone structure like a fence or fireplace from scratch or even when I just figure out how to do something, that brings great satisfaction. Finding people who appreciate the same is becoming daily less common. Being a craftsman nowadays is tantamount to living a life of servitude and while I am not convinced that the future looks bright, I am nonetheless committed. I keep building and I keep paying my debts and I keep on dreaming of better days ahead.

Yes, working with my hands is a charmed life. Like it or not, I am committed and even if I could change things, I doubt that I would. Romantic inklings aside, here's hoping I don't end up living under a bridge any time soon.

Thanks Matt and Thanks Dad.
Profile Image for Ben.
192 reviews5 followers
July 14, 2011
I highly recommend this to anyone who's ever questioned the utility of their college or graduate degree. While I am proud and happy that I have a B.A., I can't say that I think it is what will get me too far in life, and is pretty definitely not indicative of what I really enjoy in life. I've been working in carpentry/landscaping/maintenance more or less since graduating college in May 2009, and I've never felt more challenged and fulfilled than when I do a good job framing a building or siding a barn. I've never been able to articulate exactly why that is, but this book does a better job than I ever could.

Matthew Crawford does a stellar job of explaining the host of good reasons for the societal discrepancy between the usefulness of various jobs and their relative prestige, and makes a case that certain types of skilled manual labor are more intellectually and physically rewarding than jobs in "knowledge work." Don't expect this to be Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--it's funnier, grittier, and more relevant to everyday life. I can't recommend it more highly.

Edit: After more experience in the building trades and a reread, I have to say that this book holds up extremely well. I think that one of the most interesting pieces for me is that Crawford seems to have seen early on the trend toward greater self-sufficiency that is growing among my generation. I don't want to waste any space here repeating what everyone, including the the NY Times, is apparently in on, but it seems to me that while Internet-related work has become a real way to earn a living, especially for social-media savvy "young people", there are an equal number of people my age who want their day job to be something that is real and physical and rewarding. Hopefully this sense of the value of self-sufficiency will not be one of those things that our kids think is old-fashioned and silly about us when we are parents.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,713 reviews1,243 followers
August 11, 2010
I don't think I disagree with much in this book, and I would unreservedly recommend it to everyone. Its themes - that a college-educated workforce is often required to check its brains, independent thinking, judgment, and problem-solving instincts at the cubicle, and that the trades or other artisanal type work actually do involve more of those traits than much white collar labor - are critically important and deserve wider discussion, especially among society's elites: policymakers, academics, and business honchos.

My main complaint is that there's so much about motorcycles in here, a subject which interesteth me not. Motorcycle repair, parts, troubleshooting, the community of gearheads - it all gets covered amply in 210 pages of text. Just how seriously Crawford takes his work on cycles is captured here: "My job of making motorcycles run right is subservient to the higher good that is achieved when one of my customers leans hard through a corner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the point of deliberately dragging his well-armored knee on the inside. This moment of faith, daring, and skill casts a sanctifying light over my work." (Cue medieval choral music, shaft of light from heaven.) I was interested in the financial aspects of his repair business, e.g., how many hours worked on a cycle vs. how many hours he would decide to bill.

Despite what might be his protestations to the contrary, Crawford is an academic. (He's a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the Univ. of Virginia. He writes books. How much time does that leave for motorcycle repair, exactly?) He writes like someone who could have been a product of the Committee on Social Thought.* That's not a bad thing, just a heads-up: if you are dismayed at the idea of Heidegger being discussed in the context of the writing of technical manuals, you might not enjoy this book. There's a fair amount of philosophy - that's actually the genre indicated on the back of the book - Aristotle, the Stoics. It's extremely readable, though. It's not dense.

One of my favorite themes is the purposeful obfuscation, in the guise of saving the consumer time and effort, of the technology behind many products. There's the Mercedes that has no dipstick. It's an "intuitive" car, meaning there is a computer interface between the car and driver which requires the driver to abandon any hope of using her intuition, if she wanted to. He also uses the example of an infrared faucet. Wave your hands under it, and a stream of water emerges, unless it doesn't, no matter how much waving you do. This same obfuscation irritates me in products as dissimilar as newer dumbed-down versions of Windows, and newer shampoo bottles where you can't even remove the cap, in case you wanted to rinse it out for recycling. He even mentions the Build-a-Bear, which is not building a bear at all; the child selects features and clothes from a computer screen, and the bear is made. Doing is entirely removed from the process. The result, he argues, is that children will be "more well adjusted to emerging patterns of work and consumption," where predetermined rules and outcomes take precedence over independent struggle and action.

There's another wonderful (by that I mean horrific) anecdote in Crawford's telling of the first job he got after obtaining his master's degree, writing abstracts of articles in academic journals, as a full-fledged member of the "knowledge economy." Crawford is supposed to be "adding value" by crafting these abstracts, which are then sold by subscription to libraries and other institutions. The problem is that many of the articles are so arcane, there is no possible way someone without that specific knowledge can improve upon them. "It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material." His company trainer, Monica, stands before the class with a whiteboard, diagramming how it's to be done. "Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person, and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn't insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology."

* I wanted to know more of his backstory: wedged in between J.M. Coetzee and the classicist David Grene, trying to turn his dissertation into a book (on what? he doesn't say) - intriguing, to say the least.
Profile Image for Mark Jr..
Author 6 books312 followers
December 5, 2016
I was utterly taken with this book, first to last. The philosophical portions were elegantly written, insightful, and persuasive. The anecdotal interludes about car and motorcycle repair gave just enough breathing space (and entertainment) to make for a good reading pace. What a remarkable author; I will be reading anything by him I can get my hands on. On to “The World Outside Your Head.”

A friend commented that he found the philosophical portions difficult, and that his father, with an MA in carpentry and a life as a practitioner, actually found the book off-putting. I don't think this book was written for most tradesmen; they know intuitively that they engage in their practices for their intrinsic goods. They don't need a convoluted philosophical justification for what they discovered long ago was in their blood.

But I, the office worker, recognized immediately the truth of Crawford's comment that

those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.

I needed to think through whether what I’m doing is valuable or not, and I needed the philosophical meanderings. After my very intelligent friend said he found difficulty in the philosophy stuff, I realized that it was laboring through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—an immensely rewarding experience—that made it easy for me to process Crawford. Crawford mentions MacIntyre particularly in the acknowledgments, and MacIntyre’s recovery of the Aristotelian idea of virtue being tided to practices was everywhere in Crawford’s book.

I happen to have a job with most of the ideals Crawford praises: I get to do something I love (writing, and writing about the Bible), to produce something concrete (blog posts) for a specific community (Christians interested in Bible study, mostly evangelicals), with fairly objective measures for success (social shares and comments). My job and my personal life bleed into one another because I have a vocation, a calling. I feel very blessed.

But reading Crawford revealed to me what I sort of felt guilty for acknowledging before, lest it cloud my ideal vision of myself: I enjoy putzing around the garage, doing yard work, and fixing ice makers and other household stuff. My heart slows down; my stress ebbs; my brain is nonetheless challenged; I have the satisfaction of a job begun and finished; my wife gives me an admiring kiss when I’m done. I do believe I will go at this kind of work with more gusto in years to come; I won’t disdain it as I once did—thinking, “I’m a knowledge worker, a creative; I make money to pay other people to do this menial stuff.” (What a foolish vision, and an impracticable one. The money I don’t make is what forces me to fix my own stuff in the first place.)

I was convinced to read this book by Crawford’s presence on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Otherwise I would have guessed it to be sentimentalized pop psychology. But Myers took it seriously, and it became apparent quickly upon reading that I needed to as well. The stamps of Hunter’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture were clear in the book; I need to read more material coming out of that group.
Profile Image for Eylül Görmüş.
330 reviews1,570 followers
September 19, 2022
"İnsan elinden çıkma dayanıklı kullanım eşyaları dünyaya bir aşinalık kazandırır, insanlar arasında olduğu kadar insanlar ile şeyler arasındaki etkileşime de âdet ve alışkanlıklarını verirler" demiş Hannah Arendt.

İlk bölümünde bu nefis cümle bulunan "Eşyanın Dilinden Anlamak" kitabını okumaya heyecanla başladım; ancak parlak kısımları olsa da maalesef beklentimin altında kaldı. Benim gibi "doğum gününde sana ne alayım" sorusuna "Bosch'un yeni çıkardığı şarjlı tornavidayı istiyorum" diye yanıt veren bir alet / edevat / tadilat delisi için insanın eşyayla kurduğu ilişkiye dair bir kitap okuma fikri elbette çok heyecan vericiydi. Ancak güzel bir teorik tartışma olan başlayan eser ilerledikçe yazarın akademik kariyerini terk edip eşyayla ilişkisini yeniden tahsis etmek üzere bir motorsiklet tamirhanesi açma girişimini kendine karşı meşrulaştırma çabasına dönüşüyor sanki.

Kitabın temel tezi kabaca "dünyayı entelektüel anlamda doğru dürüst kavrayabilmenin yolunun, yine bu dünyaya en düz anlamıyla fiilen el atmaktan geçtiği" gibi özetlenebilir. Buna hiçbir itirazım yok. Ancak yazar bu savı biraz ileri götürüp "narsisizmin çaresi belki de bir şeyleri tamir etmektir" diyor, bu süslü cümlenin biraz fazla büyük bir laf olduğu kanaatindeyim.

Narsisizmin değilse de hissettiğimiz yıkıcı yalnızlığın çaresinin tamir olduğuna içtenlikle inanıyorum. Bu kitabı belki de Audur Ava Olafsdottir'in muhteşem romanı "Sessizlik Oteli" ile beraber okumak iyi olabilir. Şöyle demiştim o kitap için: "Varoluşsal sıkıntılarla boğuşan bunalımlı erkekler ellerine birkaç alet edevat alıp bir şeyleri -gerçekten- onarmaya başlasa ne çok şey değişecek aslında – bunu hep düşünürdüm, bu kadar somut ortaya konuluşunu okumak nefis oldu." Sanki bu kitaptaki fikrin edebiyata aktarılması gibi Sessizlik Oteli.

Biraz karmaşık bir değerlendirme oldu ama ne yapalım artık. Son not: kitapta proleteryayı yeniden düşünmemiz gerektiğine dair ilginç bölümler var. Crawford 2009 tarihli bu kitabı şimdi yazmış olsa, bence prekarya meselesine dair bir bölüm eklerdi muhakkak, çok da güzel zenginleştirirdi metni. Okurken prekarya kavramı da aklınızda bulunsun derim. Böyle.
Profile Image for Zach.
152 reviews3 followers
January 25, 2012
I'd summarize this book as "Manual work is intellectually stimulating." The writing is a bit thick (the author has a PhD and writes like he has to prove it,) but the book has a thorough philosophy on the nature of manual labor and mastering one's craft.

Personally, I thought it was interesting that his old job consisted of summarizing articles from academic journals. At one point, I would have described that as kind of a dream job: I would get to learn, write, and distill information from a very high level. But his work was ultimately an assembly line job in which he was judged by the arbitrary criteria of number of articles summarized.

In my own experience, corporate office work is routinized to a fault. A procedure must be in place to do anything, certain metrics must be measured to deem a process "acceptable." Some of that is necessary; I sure as hell wouldn't go to a machine shop to buy an artisan pacemaker. Those procedures protect the customer (you know you're getting a pacemaker like all the others) and the worker (you followed instructions and the pacemaker failed, therefore it isn't your personal fault that this patient is dead.)

But, that leaves little room for real innovation, which is what the book gets at. Corporate work makes the assumption that every aspect of a job can be documented (measure the tolerance of the valve on a vacuum pump motor and replace when at X inches) whereas the reality is that learned nuance is necessary makes a job inherently valuable (I replaced the vacuum pump because it sounded "off.") I get the feeling that apprenticeship and increased clout of vocational schools would go a long way to teaching "real" skills and reinstating a pride in manual work. Will the intellectual class become disillusioned with office work and yearn for mechanical skills? Who knows.

The book raised a lot of questions about the nature of my work and hobbies. What am I doing professionally that's irreplaceable? Is there a real, physical aspect of my work, or is it all mental abstraction? What hobbies do I have that have a real, personal touch? Are those skills useful in a community? Could I pass those on to my kids?
1 review
September 29, 2011
This book is fantastic. As a former carpenter, who at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory thought myself a craftsman, I found his writing to open up a deep sense of kinship. This is a man who cares deeply about his work and his society. As someone who now works extensively with technology and computers, I found his mild technophobia a little misplaced but highly likeable. I see no difference between working with physical objects and working with bits and bytes, but that's my personal feeling and no reflection on the book; Crawford's yearning for quality, self direction and improvement rings true. Readers may find deeper appreciation for their own jobs after reading this.

Some reviewers complained about the language being overly complicated or "hard", and that just makes me sad for books generally and the American education system specifically. His writing is as beautiful and well crafted as it gets, and those people should stop expecting pabulum, whip out a dictionary, and grow up.
708 reviews8 followers
August 25, 2016
I've struggled w/ the star # rating for this book and am going to go with what I really think, and even then I admit I'm maybe bumping this up a bit. This is such a painfully egg-headed and cerebral book that, geez, I feel like a dunce for downgrading it, but there you go. It was just SO painfully egg-heady, cerebral, and plain I'm-so-fricking-holier-than-thou that I feel like the joy was just sucked right out of the book. Geez, Mr. Crawford, I give up! You ARE a better person than just about anyone! I admit that I have no idea how to fix a motorcycle or any machine (although I do knit reasonably well - does that count?) and that I have an actual (GASP!) desk job. I totally get your point that "hand-work" such as industrial arts (shop class) is really, really worthy. (Frankly, I never thought there was any question about this...) In reality, this book is more of an attack on "classism" and "pecking order." Class is a particularly touchy subject in the USA - I remember seeing a PBS series on this topic several years ago and it was, indeed, squirm inducing - but how Mr. Crawford approaches the subject is to pit "those who work with their hands" versus those drones who (GASP!) work in an office setting, with absolutely no letting up. A number of his points ring true (said she, who until recently worked in a large corporate work setting), but... as with any book that makes the same point OVER and OVER and OVER again in language that often seems intentionally dense (author demonstrating how ridiculously brilliant he is), after awhile the reader can't help but rebel. At least this one did...
Profile Image for Kris.
1,291 reviews175 followers
February 15, 2020
Part philosophical musings, part treatise on the value of manual labor, and part memoir.

Little nuggets of good ideas are hidden away in here. I enjoyed the earlier chapters more than the later ones, as they are more concrete. Some of the main takeaways:

1) Crawford talks about outsourcing and how it's easy to move even white-collar jobs to another country, if you can boil down the process to a framework with steps to follow. But there will always be those few jobs rooted in a physical location that must constantly find dynamic solutions to problems in the here and now, like plumbers and auto-mechanics. You can't repair your car remotely from India!

2) He unpacks the differences between a desk job ("intellectual" work), and a blue-collar job, or manual work. There's good contrast between the two: using your mind at a desk job in the abstract, with unclear definitions of success in a large team, and a boss who is more cheerleader than judge, vs. using your mind to constantly analyze new physical problems, with no how-to manual and only the raw process-of-elimination driving you forward to a find new solution each time.

3) He discusses the trend toward becoming more and more detached from the inner workings of the machines that surround us. If our phone or coffee-maker breaks, why do we automatically reach to buy a new one, instead of repairing the old? Instead of understanding how to fix the item, we throw it away and replace it. We've created an artificial wall between our use of the item, and our ability to understand and repair it. The fault for this comes from all sides: designers, manufacturers, marketers, and consumers. They make cars with no oil dip-sticks now! As if you shouldn't need to ever check the oil level in your car? How crazy is that? Cobblers, jewelers, tailors, book-binders -- dozens of industries focused on fixing things have significantly decreased or virtually disappeared.

My own thoughts:
I think our rise to the middle and upper classes in recent decades came with the assumption that we shouldn't have to get down in the dirt, as if learning to tinker with and fix the inner workings of our broken machines is somehow below us. With money has come the snobbery of automatically hiring a "lesser man" to do the job for us.

We're only now coming back around from the big push toward college-oriented jobs in the last century. Immigrants from a background of manual labor sent their kids to college, hoping they would get a higher paying salary sitting behind a desk, living away from the dirt and poverty their ancestors experienced. Decades later, now in 2020, so many kids hold a college degree we don't know what to do with them all. We need to start swinging back toward the other direction: respect for the tradesman. I think we still hold the dirt = poverty assumption in our minds, and we can't seem to get away from it, even though we're 8-10 generations away from the agriculturally-focused subsistence living of the 19th century.

Only about half-way through did I realize that Crawford also wrote The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, which I read and did not enjoy as much. Luckily in this work Crawford manages to avoid getting so lost in so many obscure philosophical musings. There's some real-world examples to keep you grounded here. Read it in spite of the poor organization, to discover the hidden gems.
29 reviews
January 29, 2010
I'd probably have given this book 5 stars if Crawford didn't come across as such a macho prick (the reason I say he's a macho prick is summed up well by this NY Times book review and this one in the New Yorker).

It's unfortunate that Crawford allows his tough guy persona to seep onto the page, because the book is very compelling otherwise. It does an excellent job of explaining why office work is so demeaning and unfulfilling (hint: it's often planned to be that way), despite the fact that working in an office job often confers a higher social status than working a "lowly" job in the manual trades (think of the disparity in status between vocational school and the university). He also makes a persuasive case for the importance of understanding how the objects we come into contact with on a day-to-day basis actually work, and how to fix them when they break.

While I don't agree with some of the political implications of his ideas, and I could easily point to manual work that is completely depraved and degraded (farmworkers, factory farm work), it's also undeniable that many people feel alienated from their work because so many service sector and office jobs have been dumbed down to the point of complete degradation. While Crawford doesn't offer much of a prescription for this problem, his diagnosis will, at the very least, make you consider your own situation and think about changing it.

If you can manage to ignore the macho bullshit that appears at moments, this is a worthwhile read that will challenge you to think about your job and whether or not it serves any useful purpose.
Profile Image for Bruce Overby.
Author 2 books1 follower
June 21, 2014
My bookstore browsing process is to find a book that looks interesting, pick it up, open to a random page and start reading. "Shop Class as Soulcraft" is one of those rare instances where a fascinating passage led me to buy the book when almost any other passage would have sent me running for the exit.

In the passage I read, the author, Michael Crawford, recounts an anecdote from Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" where a disengaged and careless young motorcycle mechanic ruins one of Pirsig's bikes. It's an example of the book living up to its promise of offering valuable insight into the limited value society places on the physical/intellectual work of the craftsman vs. the "knowledge work" of the cubicle drone. The only problem is, most of the book is so ruthlessly unreadable that after struggling and flogging myself through the first half, I simply had to give up and put it down. Crawford, a PhD in Philosophy who has chosen to make his living fixing classic motorcycles, tortures the reader by wrapping his anecdotal gems in an obtuse thicket of supporting prose, stating and restating his arguments until you're ready to throw the stupid book at the wall. I found myself silently screaming at the author--"Write more like a motorcycle mechanic and less like a PhD!" or "Please, let me rewrite this stupid thing for you!"--until I just couldn't take it anymore.

The fact that this is a bestseller is a testament to catchy titles and effective flap copy. I can only imagine that this, like Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," is a book purchased by many and actually read by very few.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
496 reviews718 followers
April 17, 2018
This is not a book about how you can make more money as a plumber than by going to law school. It is, rather, a book of philosophy, revolving around thoughts on alienation, self-reliance, and what we owe to others. I found it to be both a bit rambling and unexpectedly deep—it manages to connect the thoughts of Marx with those of Aristotle, and it combines practical thoughts on how one should earn one’s bread with advice for living a whole life. The net effect is worthwhile, though not earthshattering.

The project of the author, Matthew Crawford, is to argue for the value of work “that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful.” Although the manual trades exemplify centering your life around meaningful work, such work is not confined to someone employed in the manual trades. Any time we rely on our own efforts with real things and are “master of our own stuff,” we exemplify self-reliance, which is a form of individual agency and creates meaning. Not doing genuinely useful work and not relying on yourself lead to lack of agency, which means alienation, and is at the root of much modern angst. And since many, if not most, modern workplaces exemplify both no useful work, or no obviously useful work, and the opposite of self-reliance, it is no wonder that many people find themselves unfulfilled—lost in a dark wood, as it were.

A fair bit of this book is autobiography, and Crawford has had an interesting path. He was raised for some years in a commune, and started work early as an electrician, while also developing an interest in motor engines. Then he detoured into getting a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago; declined an academic career; did some (unfulfilling) think tank work; and now primarily works as a motorcycle mechanic. I found Crawford’s background and his ideas particularly resonant, because his career path has some similarities to mine (though only in the generalities). As I outline in more detail in my review of Joan Williams’s "White Working Class," I went from being a corporate lawyer at a giant law firm to being a finish carpenter, and from there to owning and operating a light industrial business, which has been extremely successful, such that I am now left with money and time. With that time, I am (among other things), taking up metalworking (lathes, mills, and so forth). Therefore, I understand, and agree with, some of Crawford’s points more viscerally than I might if, say, I had only ever been a lawyer.

Crawford starts simply, discussing the relatively narrow subject of shop class—or, more broadly, the “useful arts.” Shop class is dying, or being killed, of course, and Crawford thinks that is a tragedy. Manual work is psychically satisfying. It is also often cognitively demanding, more so than, say, management consulting, because it can’t be reduced to abstract rules that can be mechanically and universally applied to all situations. Accumulated knowledge of reality, wisdom, is what makes a manual craftsman good at his work. (Crawford grants that not all manual labor is true “craft,” but uses the terms mostly interchangeably, while adding a few snarky words about people who are overly hung up on curly maple or Japanese swords.) Moreover, manual work has a social element frequently missing in office work—the craftsman is embedded in a larger set of communities, including other workers, customers, other small businesspeople, and so forth. And, aside from these benefits, manual work, the majority of which that still remains can’t be outsourced, is simply often today a better economic bet than much professional-managerial work. Unfortunately, too often manual work is looked down on, and in fact much manual work was, beginning in the early twentieth century, robbed of its satisfactions by attempts to abstract its performance from the material at hand.

So far, this is only modestly philosophical. Next, Crawford draws the history of how, in the early twentieth century, those in charge of business made concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing, thereby severing much of the psychic, cognitive, and social benefits of manual work from the worker himself. Crawford does not deny this may be efficient, in the sense of maximizing output, but it degrades the worker and the workforce, and is ultimately deleterious to society on all levels. Taylorism comes in for a good deal of criticism; Marx for some limited praise. As Crawford points out, Taylorism is less about time than it is about cost—that is, paying the laborer the least possible per unit of output, by reducing reliance on skilled workers. Yes, Henry Ford doubled pay—because he had to, since his assembly line work was so unpleasant. And the caliber of the workers paid, their skills and their intelligence, dropped. Today, the same process occurs among wide swathes of white-collar workers—it is not true that we have a “creative class” because minimum wage workers at Best Buy are praised for offering suggestions. They, and most employees, are instead degraded wage slaves, who are alienated from their labor, the fruits of which they cannot even see or apprehend, but which in any case go to others. And although Taylor doesn’t mention it (this book was published in 2009), artificial intelligence threatens to further continue this process (although I don’t believe AI will ever fulfil its supposed promise, in any other than the narrowest areas, and probably not even there).

Given that “work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else’s interests—that’s why you get paid,” we should aim not at silly vaporous beliefs like Best Buy workers being “creative,” but at goals “that avoid utopianism while keeping an eye on the human good: work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible.” We should not “partition thinking from doing.” Yes, some people should be employed as thinkers, since we need thinkers in some positions, after all, and some people are best suited to be thinkers, although most “knowledge workers” are nothing of the sort. But there is wide scope still for non-routinized manual work, and the young should be encouraged to evaluate those alternatives. If you choose manual work, “One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are [therefore] a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.” It will be better for them and for society.

The next few chapters work out this set of philosophies, both of themselves and in opposition to certain dominant modern philosophies. As to the opposition, first, as Crawford points out explicitly, craft is a challenge to consumerism—the ethic of continual discarding while in constant pursuit of new, usually junky, products produced by others. A craft approach views objects as valuable—to be repaired, if possible, rather than simply discarded—and the craftsman creates objects as best he can for their own sake, and his own sake, with an eye to permanence, which creates real “self-esteem” for the craftsman, not the fake self-esteem offered to students today. Second, and related, craft is focused on the pursuit of excellence. Talent, experience, and skill are objectively measurable in their results and they mean that some people are better at what they do than others. “The lover of excellence is prone to being drawn out of himself . . . in a way that the universalist egalitarian is not.” Along the same lines, craft requires judgment in its exercise, and “the necessity of such judgment calls forth human excellence.”

In addition to opposing consumerism and exalting excellence, the manual arts also oppose the modern tendencies toward unreality and autonomic individualism. Craft pays homage to reality and to an understanding of the world as it is, and rejects artificiality and ideological distortions of the world. “[W]hat it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal. . . . There is an underlying fact: a sheared-off pin has blocked an oil gallery, resulting in starvation to the head and excessive heat, causing the seizures. This is the Truth, and it is the same for everyone.” This is certainly true, but today when reality is not fashionable and the existence of excellence, much less its importance as a goal, is denied, you can see how manual labor is necessarily subversive of modernity, even reactionary, from its very nature. Which is probably one reason why it is denigrated by our ruling classes.

Fourth, the manual arts are inherently opposed to autonomic individualism and to a belief that what matters is emancipation from limits. Engines and metal have limits that are real; they do not care who you are and you must bend to their rules. At the same time, though, Crawford emphasizes self-reliance, which seems on the surface to be linked to increasing autonomy. We must each be “master of our own stuff” if we are to have agency. Cars that lack dipsticks and computer interfaces meant to be “intuitive,” that is, to prevent any thought on the part of the user, make us dependent, rather than self-reliant. Yes, there can be countervailing benefits, but we tend to exaggerate those and gloss over the costs. Here Crawford notes a subtle and important point—we may be less self-reliant by not being masters of our own stuff, but we get in return more autonomy, the ability to use our tools for precisely the purposes we choose, unfettered by having to deal with the reality of those tools. At the same time, we get less agency. As with a musician who must practice and obey the mechanical reality of an instrument and of musical tones whose “facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them,” “the basic character of human agency [is that] it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making.” The fewer limits, paradoxically, the less agency, the less self-reliance, and the more autonomy.

Seeing that self-reliance itself also implies, at first glance, more autonomy, Crawford goes to some effort to distinguish his call for self-reliance from a call for unfettered, atomistic freedom of the individual. “The kind of self-reliance I have in mind is essentially different from the cult of the sovereign self, and it requires some further reflection on the idea of agency.” By agency, he means not action directed by the will of the self, but “activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not something arbitrary and private. Rather, it flows from an apprehension of real features of the world. . . . . [The manual worker’s] individuality is not only compatible with, it is realized through his efforts to reach a goal that is common. His individuality is thus expressed in an activity that, in answering a shared world, connects him to others. . . . Such a social individuality contrasts with the self-enclosure that is implicit in the idea of ‘autonomy,’ which means giving a law to oneself. The idea of autonomy denies that we are born into a world that existed prior to us. It posits an essential aloneness; an autonomous being is free in the sense that a being severed from all others is free. To regard oneself this way is to betray the natural debts we owe the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude.” This is, of course, is merely a straightforward application of the universal Western view of freedom from Aristotle until the Enlightenment—that liberty is the ability of each person to choose virtue and self-rule. Crawford’s self-reliance is a bound self-reliance, embedded in a larger society; it is the very opposite of the self-reliance of Robinson Crusoe, or of a man adrift in an ocean of liquid modernity.

As you can see from all this, many of Crawford’s philosophical points overlap. I found that his arguments often felt a bit rambling—not wrong, but not totally crisp. I am not sure if that is a fault in my perception or a fault in his writing. In any case, Crawford intermittently returns to more robust autobiography, talking about how he became educated, in particular through discovery of his own dispositions—a real form of “diversity.” He offers a number of interesting insights, including (in the context of understanding an engine rebuild), after being educated by someone with more experience, “It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible.” The mechanical arts therefore reward attentiveness, less so than creativity—but we are always told how important creativity is, in every context, and attentiveness is denigrated.

Crawford then pivots to an analysis of cubicle labor, noting, for example, that “Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance oriented,” but that’s mostly a lie, and wholly a lie in comparison to the objective performance found in the mechanical arts. More broadly, office work focuses on teamwork, the manual trades on individual responsibility (sometimes in the form of a crew—where there is a hierarchy of both authority and competency), which again leads to a reality-based search for excellence. I agree with this—teamwork, so exalted in business school and by mediocre businessmen, is a complete waste of time, except in the context of having a team leader who hands out orders to subordinates, as in the military. The reality is that nearly all true, egalitarian, teams in any business context are composed of a toxic brew of free-riding and lowest-common-denominator behavior, a race to plumb the bottom of the Sea of Competency. Which is why egalitarian teams are not found in high-performing businesses (even if their leaders pay lip service to the idea). Far better, says Crawford, to have individual competency and responsibility harnessed to a common goal. The workplace needs “a concrete task that rules the job—an autonomous good that is visible to all.” That white-collar workplaces usually lack such a task is one reason why management devolves into therapy, speech is regulated, and sensitivity is everything, because there is no objective standard of excellence.

It is, I think, important to note that while Crawford nowhere adverts to it, this is really a book directed at men. Shop class, when it existed, was almost exclusively male, and this is rooted in biological reality—that men are, on average, much more interested in manual work than are women. The equivalent of shop class for women was “home economics,” and women selected that at similar rates to men selecting shop class. Shop class and the mechanical arts revolve around typically masculine traits, such as problem solving, competition, and objectively demonstrating competency and prowess, and they often involves danger (all the most dangerous trades are utterly dominated by men). Self-reliance itself, in fact, is much more a masculine aspiration than a feminine aspiration. Home economics revolves around feminine traits, such as nurturing and empathy. Nor was it some form of discrimination that created these differences between the trades and home economics—as has been proven time and time again, most notably in the “progressive” Scandinavian countries, when women are given totally free career choices, they gravitate more to traditionally female activities. This underlying reality is obvious between the lines in this book—Crawford refers nearly exclusively to men, in phrasing, anecdotes, and use of generic pronouns. Many women might find this book interesting on a philosophical level, and a few might find it useful to their lives, but in practice, this book’s audience is men.

The book could have addressed numerous related issues, though of course an author has to draw the line somewhere. For example, Crawford mostly ignores issues such as class, which to some people would loom as the most important matter relating to the manual arts. He does not much address the simple dignity of manual craft labor, as opposed to the false “dignity” exalted recently by our Supreme Court and our other moral betters. And he barely mentions manual work that is repetitive factory work with no aspect of “mechanical art” or craft; his arguments apply much less to such work, but he does not dwell on the distinction and its implications. Certainly, line workers in my own factory, who start at $13/hour (considered a good starting wage for unskilled labor), may experience less alienation than an office worker, but they also don’t experience the same psychic and social benefits, or self-reliance and agency, that a motorcycle mechanic does. Distinguishing, therefore, among types of manual labor seems like an important task if one is actually considering adopting manual work as a job.

Ultimately, as I say, "Shopcraft as Soulcraft" is bit rambling for my taste. It’s not that it meanders, but it does stroll, among its topics, with quite a few asides. Thus, the end result hangs together, but it’s hard to parse sometimes, since it doesn’t have a strong frame. The reader therefore feels like he’s learned something, and advanced his thought, but it’s more holistic than specific. On the other hand, perhaps that’s the intent—“soulcraft,” after all, sounds pretty holistic. Either way, the reader does benefit from the book, and it raises important philosophical and practical questions that, especially for young people, bear thinking about.
Profile Image for Anna.
195 reviews
April 10, 2023
"My point, finally, isn't to recommend motorcycling in particular, nor to idealize the life of a mechanic. It is rather to suggest that if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding may be hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed. In this conversation lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives."

"The lover of excellence is prone to being drawn out of himself, erotically almost, in a way that the universalist egalitarian is not. The latter's empathy, projected from afar and without discrimination, is more principled than attentive. [...] it is content to posit rather than to see the humanity of its beneficiaries. But the one who is on the receiving end of such empathy wants something more than to be recognized generically. He wants to be seen as an individual, and recognized as worthy on the same grounds on which he has striven to be worthy, indeed superior, by cultivating some particular excellence or skill."

I started in print and finished with the audiobook. It was a thought-provoking read that I've assigned to my 15-year-old who is still considering which career to pursue. Some bad language and sexual references (nothing explicit).
Profile Image for Carol Bakker.
1,161 reviews78 followers
August 19, 2016
Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio Journal) introduced me to Matthew Crawford, calling Shop Class as Soulcraft a hymn to the virtues of what he called manual competence and a lament for the decline of honor accorded to work with one's hands.

My husband, a former high school shop teacher, was captivated from the first page — bemoaning the disappearance of shop classes from our common education — kept interrupting my reading of another book to share a paragraph of this book. Thus, he convinced me to read it myself.

Crawford has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago, but when he’s not writing he makes a living as a motorcycle mechanic. (While this is a rare combination, I know several carpenters who are conversant with Kierkegaard and Heidegger. My husband can weld an axle and ask compelling questions.)

Crawford’s book is part social history, part philosophy, and part memoir. The altitude of some of the metaphysical musings were beyond my reach but within stretching distance. The history of transition from craftsmanship to assembly line and the degradation of blue collar work was absorbing. His personal ‘education of a gearhead’ was fun and fascinating reading.

Crawford laughs at the cubicle culture with teambuilding activities and speech codes. He urges learning a trade even if you go to college. Reading this book inspires me to pick up a shovel and dig in my garden.

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes.

To see a cool picture of Curt welding: https://alivingpencil.com/2016/08/19/...
4 reviews3 followers
March 20, 2016
Was rooting for Crawford to win me over with this book so hard, but he didn't quite do it. It would be so awesome he had both the diagnosis and remedy for my vague "knowledge worker" malaise. He makes some provocative arguments, and his chapter on the contradictions of office jobs was cathartic, but at the end, I was surprised by how flimsy the central argument was for someone who studied philosophy.

He tells us to choose a career that deals with things that are "real" without ever fully defining what real is, only hinting at a definition here and there. "Real" is something to do with physical things that give you objective feedback rather than overly intellectual things that you can re-define in your head at will. It's something that situates you in a community, where you have face-to-face interactions and are in service to some greater purpose that you genuinely care about. There should be opportunities to learn and be humbled. And it shouldn't be too soft or concerned with feelings and team work like the feminized office culture we've become accustomed to. A man needs the freedom to make a dirty joke.

Despite the fact that he's so enamored of masculinity, it almost sounds like he's writing an unwitting defense of being a housewife. He's asking us to question everything we thought we knew about what counts as valuable work, urging us to reconsider the belief that physical work isn't also intellectual. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if he acknowledged that his glamorized manly man with grease on his hands isn't that different from the harried housewife with spit-up on her shirt.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
310 reviews124 followers
October 27, 2015
Perhaps a rather middle-class, rose-tinted view of the trades and craftsmanship - it reminded me a little of How To Be Free - “it’s great to do manual work, but to do so properly you have to have a very well read, philosophical understanding of it”. I wasn't so keen on the biography/nitty gritty of how to make motorcycles (the whole point being you have to learn by doing, not by text books, so trying to explain mechanisms wasn't that great!), so the middle 4 chapters could have been cut out of my copy and I've been very happy. The main message was sound however, and it was thought provoking...

.... SO, I was all set to give this four stars, then something started to really get my goat; he assumes almost the entire way through the book that those learning manual skills will be boys, and those working in trades will be men - perhaps because of the 'inevitable sexual jokes' in workshops (if he thinks women don't make sexual jokes he obviously doesn't know many), or something? If manual work is so great and can lead to a utopian society etc etc, why can't women participate? And so Crawford may have been writing about how many workshops *are*, but given he is trying to change society's whole outlook on crafts and trades, couldn't that aspect be questioned a bit too? Gah!
Profile Image for Greta.
563 reviews15 followers
June 27, 2012
Based on the title of this book I thought I'd find a kindred spirit extolling the virtues of "doing" as opposed to "thinking and talking", working with ones' hands instead of at a desk. Instead I got a lot of shop talk, descriptions of fixing motorcycles and philosophizing about certain choices the author made with regard to his own trajectory through life. I was bored by his inability to stay on topic. I didn't think this was supposed to be an autobiography. The author's PhD. gave him the ability to discourse on a subject at length, but it didn't do much for his ability to be concise, focused or answer a posited question directly. Why it's good to work with your hands could be summed up in a few terse paragraphs. Why working in a corporate setting is not so good, can also be explained succinctly. Chop wood, carry water. Talk does not cook rice. I was hoping for something that would even remotely interest me as a female. This is definitely a guy's book.
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