The Case For Working With Your Hands

Or Why Office Work is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Feels Good

by Matthew Crawford

I should have seen it coming. Any book with a title that long (yes the title is THAT long) cannot be completely straightforward.

I ordered the book online after I heard about it on a podcast (that is now long lost) a couple of years ago. From the book waited patiently on my bookshelf for about 2 years wondering when its turn would come. For some books the wait can be very long indeed as I follow no particular order in reading my books but then this is more about the book than about my reading habits so let me get back to the subject in hand.

On the podcast I think I got the impression that this book spoke about the merits of crafting/ making/ producing / fixing things with our hands- that is how manual and physical labour can sometimes give us the satisfaction that a purely intellectual activity cannot- the satisfaction of having created an effect that is tangible. I thought I could relate to that. After all I myself sometimes find the need to work with my hands to craft something that I can touch and feel.

For starters the book which praises working with hands is not the easiest of reads with bits of it resembling something taken off a course book for Philosophy 101. Two reasons for this- one being that the author himself- though currently a motorcycle mechanic has a doctorate in Philosophy and I guess ultimately this is something of a philosophy the author is talking about. Woe to you if you are not the type that is interested in reading the heavy stuff and were just looking for some sort of validation of your love for your vocation.

On the Bike on the road to nowhere
On the Bike on the road to nowhere

So clearly this book was aimed for people who can at least put up with a bit of intellectual high-brow reading. So is this all about thrashing the intellectual and praising the physical? That seems confused- while the author does seem to pooh pooh purely theoretical pursuits that may not be applicable practically (mathematical constructs, computer aided Origami (yes you read that right)), he does not seem to be against all intellectual pursuits- acquiring knowledge, languages etc., What  he seems to insist is how our intellectual pursuits should be blended with the practical, helping us develop ourselves.

The real problem that the author seems to have is with how all jobs- both blue collar and white collar seem to have been dumbed down. That is we have all been reduced to following a process rather than given the freedom to truly understand the complete picture. That is most jobs really do not require us to use our brains. I agree with the author on that, but I really don’t see a way out at the current moment. Yes the assembly line as we know it does not need master craftsmen or mechanics, but is there another way to respond to global supply and demand? Globalisation may have outsourced goods and services but it has also done a lot of good for standards of living around the world. How could we turn back and go to a time where we could all do things manually and really well and yet make thousands of cars a day? I am not quite sure the author proposes a solution.

And then there is all the talk about engines and cars and bikes. Frankly if I had known the book was going to dwell on things about how cars and bikes were repaired by master mechanics who knew their stuff from years of experience rather than inexperienced diagnostic gadget toting reps, I may not have even bought the book. It is true that the author makes a disclaimer at the beginning that he can only talk mostly only about his experience but even that does not justify all the attention to the motorcycles (there is a reason why I never read Zen and the art of motorcycle whatever). What about other trades that work with their hands- carpenters and builders get a brief mention but that is about it.  What about other people and women? Many may want to be convinced about the enriching experience of working with our own hands but motorcycle maintenance is not a one stop solution.

In the end, the entire book seems to be more an autobiography- a justification of why the author wanted to be a motorcycle maintenance person despite having studied philosophy. I don’t even know if such a thing required a justification in the first place.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nirmala says:

    I totally agree with your conclusion,even if I have not read the book. Your summary is good enough. He seems to be justifying his case, not in general.
    Maybe he wants others to draw thier own solutions and write their own books !

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Possibly 🙂

  2. Sounds like the guy wrote a book just for the sake of writing one…

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