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