Book Reviews - Spring 2008

The Art of Doing


Let’s give our hands a great big hand

By Wayne Curtis

March 1, 2008

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett, Yale University Press, $27.50

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was staged in London in 1851. Victorians went to the exhibit and marveled at inventions like the Singer sewing machine, the vertical printing press, and the tempest prognosticator, a device that involved 12 leeches, some small bottles, and a bell that rang to warn of impending storms. But the chief draw was the remarkable Crystal Palace, an 1,800-foot-long greenhouse-like structure that housed the exhibition and was perhaps the era’s most audacious emblem of technological ingenuity. Built of cast iron and nearly 300,000 panes of glass, it glistened in the sun and was large enough to enclose full-grown elms. Nothing like it had been seen before.

Is there a contemporary equivalent? I’d like to nominate the new Apple Store on West 14th Street in New York. Although lacking the grand scale of the Crystal Palace, it’s arguably the leading showcase of modern capital goods for the information age. Here, denizens of the creative class—Web designers, musicians, aspiring indie moviemakers—crowd in and reverently touch the perforated tower of the Mac Pro, run their fingertips along the attenuated edges of the new MacBook Air, and navigate the iPod click wheels.

The 14th Street Apple Store also borrows some of that transcendent transparency of the Crystal Palace: rising up through the building’s atrium is a remarkable three-story helix, a spiral staircase made almost wholly of glass. It looks as fantastical and impractical as Cinderella’s slipper, and most everyone is enticed upward, even if they have no interest in the wares above, just to see if it will hold.

It will. The stairs are actually patented—“the invention pertains to an improved glass member configured to support loads, as for example from people walking thereon”—with the patent owned by Apple’s Steve Jobs, et al. Glass stairways, if not as elaborate as this, are now a feature at many of the major Apple stores, and are as expected by today’s consumer as intricately carved wooden staircases were by visitors to 18th-century manor houses.

It’s also wholly fitting that this iconic staircase is more a marvel of headcraft than of handcraft. Walking upward thereon, you’ll look across tables lined with intent people pecking away at keyboards, staring at screens, trying out the goods. (Apple stores remind me slightly of modern scriptoria—I read that a young woman wrote an entire book during visits to Apple’s SoHo store.) From head to electrons by way of the hands, the creative class transmutes the vague firings of the synapses to something of commercial or artistic value on the screen.

But, oh, those hands! So slow, so clunky, so antiquated. Our hands are slightly dimwitted middlemen, and have been since the invention of the quill pen. They’re the chokepoint between thinking and making. (Our much-admired opposable thumb has lately proven inconveniently located for anything other than mashing a stupidly large space bar.) Someday, improved eyeball-tracking technology and cranium implants will eliminate the bottleneck of the hands, and then our headcraft will at last flow unimpeded from mind to the screen to the world.

But until then, we might wonder: When the process of creation bypasses the hands, what’s lost?

Funny you should ask.

Richard Sennett is someone I imagine would be comfortable in the Apple Store—if not writing, at least observing. This historian-sociologist-novelist—a professor at both the London School of Economics and New York University—is the author of well-regarded and influential books on the erosion of civic life (The Fall of Public Man); the hidden social world of cities (The Conscience of the Eye); and the societal downside of career instability (The Corrosion of Character). When I first learned that he had written a new book titled The Craftsman, I thought, how nice! Now edging toward retirement (Sennett just turned 65), I imagined him puttering around his basement woodshop and penning a book about difficult joinery.

But, actually: no. The Craftsman is another ambitious, thought-provoking look at how we humans connect with, relate to, and understand the world around us. It’s the first of a trilogy he’s planning—the second will look at how we craft rituals to manage aggression, and the third how we craft sustainable environments. (Sennett told The Guardian in 2001 that “I have probably only one book left in me. I would like to do something on the sociology of performing.” So much for that.)

The central premise of The Craftsman is straightforward: “the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others.” It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland inversion of that tired commonplace, the one about objects we craft being an expression of who we are. Sennett looks at how the things we make shape us—or as he puts it, “what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves.” Sennett doesn’t confine his discussion of craft to things like dovetail joints, but embraces a more catholic definition, including just about anything that demands an acquired dexterity and hand skill, from playing a musical instrument to making bricks to preparing a particularly complicated chicken recipe.

Start with that antiquated hand. The fingertips aren’t just receptors of touch, conveying useful data (“Ouch! Hot!”); when the hand is properly employed, Sennett suggests, it opens a door to a broader, deeper sort of learning. He quotes Kant: “The hand is the window on to the mind.” And more. In Sennett’s formulation, the hand bone is connected to the brain bone, and the brain bone is connected to the social bone. In this, Sennett expands on the pragmatist creed that one learns by doing (or in F. C. S. Schiller’s shorthand, “experience is experiment”). It’s not the sort of highly contentious argument likely to incite sputtering rebuttals, but some of the assertions he makes in building this case may cause an involuntary eyebrow flex or two.

Sennett devotes a chapter to examining the hand in some detail, traveling the short but convoluted distance from fingertips to mind, and using musicians, glass blowers, and cooks as examples. He reminds us why the opposable thumb is actually such a big deal: with it, we can hold an object with one hand while the other works upon that object. Once we get something in our grip, cultural evolution takes over—with the hands not just developing skills, but serving as a conduit for values. Learning to play the violin, for instance, is a journey fraught with repeated errors and near-instant corrections, Sennett writes. The student is engaged in “a dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error.” By losing that fear of error, one learns to work backward from consequence to cause.

Another example: Glass blowers learn to find a rhythm in their routine. When done properly, “ingrained hand motions [become] part of the act of seeing ahead.” Or the chef with his kitchen knife learns the art of applying the exact amount of needed force to achieve a goal. The alternative, brute force, is not only the refuge of the weak and unskilled, but it hinders accuracy. It’s a lesson Sennett expands, perhaps a bit ambitiously, to our military and diplomatic skills: “Here is the craft contained in state-craft.”

Sennett examines the making of things through lenses of three different focal lengths—craftsmen, craft, and craftsmanship—each of which merits its own section. Within these overlapping perspectives, the view of the landscape slides from hand to human to humankind.

Among the more fascinating wide-angle excursions is a journey through the old workshops—specifically, the Renaissance workshops where craft was once routinely transmitted between the generations. Excellence in craft isn’t achieved by spending time alone, Sennett notes, but by learning from others, and repeating and repeating and repeating. (Echoing a commonly held notion, Sennett notes that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing to become expert.)

The workshop wasn’t just a place for making fine cabinetry or a melodious tune or the perfect meal, but “a productive space in which people deal face-to-face with issues of authority.” The apprentice worked with a master who set the standards, and in time he became a journeyman before eventually emerging as a master himself. “The history of the workshop shows, in sum, a recipe for binding people tightly together,” Sennett writes. “The essential ingredients of this recipe were religion and ritual.” It’s a far more complex recipe than the raw competition—between ideas, between peers—that passes for full-throttle progress in today’s career-driven world. Competition alone is a formula for mediocrity of product, Sennett suggests, and mediocrity of mind.

Sennett is not a Luddite. He’s not even very Ruskinesque. (“On balance, the eighteenth century embraced the virtue of abundance, mechanically produced, and so should we,” he writes.) But he does lay out a good case for reconnecting with our hands and with our minds, not simply regarding them as mistake-prone pistons loosely attached to a keyboard.

At the least, Sennett seems to hope that we’ll pause and consider what’s lost when we cease to use our hands to create. “When the head and the hand are separated, the result is mental impairment,” he writes, “an outcome particularly evident when a technology like cad [computer-aided design] is used to efface the learning that occurs through drawing by hand.”

A reader might view The Craftsman as a book-length plea for the return of the mandatory high school shop class. And Sennett made me think this might not be a bad goal, if done right. And not shop class as a dumping ground for force-feeding dull students basic skills to prepare them for manufacturing or the trades. But for the same reason many tout a liberal arts education—not simply learning about the great works or the great people, but learning how to think, how to reason.

Shop class, in Sennett’s formulation, might teach us not just how to make a better bookshelf, but how to build a better human being.

Wayne Curtis is the author of  The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today and And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.

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