Intelligent text which pits craftsmanship and repair against vapid consumerism


BOOK OF THE DAY: The Case for Working with Your HandsBy Matthew Crawford, Viking, 246pp, £ 16.99, writes JOHN S DOYLE

THE TITLE and the motorbike carved in wood on the cover call to mind Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That best-selling work of philosophy, published in 1974, took the form of a road trip by a father and son across the US. A recurrent theme was that we should understand the technology we use, and not be ruled by it; working on your own motorbike was one way of accomplishing this. The book expressed many of the ideas about the environment and consumerism flowing about in the 1960s and 1970s, though its author, Robert Pirsig, was far from being a hippie.

There is an interesting line from Pirsig to Matthew Crawford (born in 1966, growing up in a commune, and working as an electrician’s helper at age 13 instead of going to school, the latter is in many ways a child of the former). This book continues the argument, with more stress on philosophical precepts but still told through a kind of biography.

But we are deeper in than Pirsig feared. Almost 40 years on, we are engulfed in technologies that he never knew and that we use without understanding.

Crawford speaks up for “an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence”. He makes the point that craftsmanship is in opposition to consumerism: the craftsman cherishes what he has made, and will if necessary repair it; the consumer “discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new”.

Further “craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement”. This leads to a state where “self-esteem” is a right in itself, rather than something earned by what you have accomplished.

The author contrasts the narcissist who has delusions of omnipotence with the repairman who “has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things”. He identifies as an ethical virtue the notion that “to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken”. And he approves of what Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary said, that “no one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life”.

Crawford’s views on the value of work become more persuasive when we learn that he has a PhD in the history of political thought from the University of Chicago, and chucked in a promising academic career to set up a workshop fixing old motorbikes.

Not that he is anti-intellectual. He relishes Iris Murdoch just as much as he does his first ride in a Porsche 911, aged 15 (the “sharp edges of raspy growl rounded off to a rumble”).

He combines his workshop with a fellowship at the University of Virginia. But he does reckon, contrary to orthodoxy, that not everybody is suited to university; for those in doubt he suggests learning a trade in the summers. He is quick to say we don’t all have to repair motorbikes. An understanding of the good life, the “struggle for individual agency”, can be found in various places – such as in the mechanical realities of learning to play a musical instrument – though most likely not in the kind of cubicle office that we laugh at (to keep from crying) in the Dilbert cartoons. This small book confronts us with big ideas.

John S Doyle is a freelance journalist