Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"In these days, all young people want to make something"...

Me and the shuttle Enterprise
That my friends, was the opening line from a book once held by the New York Public Library, How to Make Common Things.  Written by John Bower and published in 1895, it is now available free online from Google books. It offers great advice for starting out with a few simple tools.

These days, many kids seem to think that in order to make something you'll need a computer and a 3-D printer, for along the way, we've forgotten to introduce them to simple things... the joy you can make for yourself with scissors and string and then progressing to other simple tools of the various trades. Still, it seems that the hunger to make things is alive and well, and we need to make sure children have the opportunity. We need not start with complicated equipment, and we'd best start now.

This particular book was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but you would not know that from the simple tone of the book. There is no preaching tone from it as one might find in Christian books of today, as back then, in 1895, it was understood by nearly all that the values of craftsmanship were moral values by which human society and religious values were made secure. Put saws and hammers in the hands of people of all faiths, put literature and zealotry aside, and you'll find them joyously engaged.

At the American Museum of Natural History, the had a display of video interviews with a few scientists who described how they attempt to reconcile their religious beliefs with what they have come to learn of the real world... Not the biblical world described in a single book, but rather, what the actual circumstances of creation are, that can be discovered by a systematic examination of physical reality. There is another museum in Kentucky where they try to claim that dinosaurs and man walked the earth at the same time, and what huge stupidity there is in that.

If you believe in craftsmanship you are free to also believe in science, for the values are not conflicting. If you believe only in sacred books, your understanding of reality and of your place within the world will be necessarily distorted, bringing you to odds with those who've chosen other books to hold sacred and supreme.

But putting all that aside, give me a hammer and some nails, a saw and piece of wood, and your attention for a few minutes, and we'll make a box, and the world will be a better place from it. In making that box, we'll share the common values inherent in craftsmanship, and carry away from it the desire to share with others who we really are.

Yesterday, in addition to walking the high line from one end to the other, we visited the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. Today we head home from New York. The shuttle Enterprise was built as a prototype for atmospheric testing, and was never fitted out fully for space. But it is on display at the Intrepid Museum and standing along side, one marvels that they were ever able to launch such things in space.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Doug,
    Appreciate this link to the book. Finally got my hands on another book of the period, one I learned about from your invaluable blog, Charles Ham's Mind and Hand.

    Your thoughts on religion and handwork brings to mind Ruskin, who was raised an evangelical Christian and evolved to embrace what's been described as a "religion of humanity"—a sort of small "c" catholic. Of course manual work was, for Ruskin, at the center of his worldview and his hopes for the world's redemption. A line from his important book Sesame and Lilies comes to mind: "[T]here is a true Church wherever one hand meets another helpfully, and that is the only holy or Mother Church which ever was, or ever shall be."

  2. Thanks for the Ruskin quote. I am convinced that craftsmanship is a greater moral force than religion. You need not believe in God to be a great craftsman. In fact, I think belief in God as a moral force has been overrated. Look what they did to Copernicus, and Gallileo, and the Incans. Just think of the craftsmanship religious zealots destroy, even to this day.

  3. Doug,
    I agree. This is extremely fertile soil for thought. I've only poked around in it, but have wished I had time to work it up into some essays. Two big matters stand out. First, in Homeric legend Hephaestus's wife was Charis, the obvious significance there being that the Greeks recognized a sacred link between craft and charity. Second, and pursuing Ruskin a little further, the 3rd chapter of Sesame and Lilies, "The Mystery of Life and Its Arts" doesn't get enough attention because the academic minds, the minds primarily reading and talking about Ruskin, are predisposed to doubt its conclusion: that it's not the clergy, nor the scholars, nor the worldly businessmen who grasp the meaning and mystery of life but the artisans. It seems to be up to those artisans to bring out the truth of this.

  4. Tim, it is difficult to give voice to that which can only be experienced in order to be understood. That seems to be the barrier between the purely academic, the clerics, scholars and businessmen and the world that artisans inhabit.

    You mention those reading Ruskin who doubt his conclusions, which then makes one wonder why they would read him in the first place except that it might fit into their feelings of being smug and superior... As though reading the words of Ruskin allows them to feel as though they've mastered Ruskin.

    It is like those who study art history, thinking that by classifying works, they can gain a sense of mastery over the arts. But ask them to try painting like Jackson Pollack and they'll be afraid to get paint on their shoes.