Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Joe Barry offered his review written for The Old Saw , the Newsletter of the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers to use in the blog and I have chosen to share the first part:
The Craftsman. Richard Sennett. Yale University Press. 2008. $27.50.

The crafts revival is over half a century old and has a rich literary tradition. Unfortunately, it would appear that Sociology Professor Richard Sennett is unaware of that that rich tradition. Instead, he lives up to the undergraduate canard about the “fuzzy studies” department in colleges and takes the reader for yet another ride through the thoughts of “dead white men”. The Greeks and the philosophers of the Enlightenment are the core of this rambling and inconclusive book. Rather than the reflective, broad, worldview of contemporary craftsmen that includes the Oriental approaches to craft, Sennett remains firmly rooted to the Eurocentric past.

Instead of a book about the craftsman and his relationship to his tools, materials, and products we get the musings of philosophers who watched work but did not participate except in long scholarly missives. I was reminded of an office sign I was given by one of my ergonomics clients: “I love work. I could sit and watch it all day”.
I think Joe and I and many others had high expectations of a book with such a simple but engaging title. Perhaps some disappointment is justified. I was looking forward to the book for the very simple reason that it has been published by Yale University Press and attention to the subjects of skill and craftsmanship by academia is centuries past due. The crafts community is deserving of attention and recognition. I'm doubtful that what we need most will come from academia but from craftsmen themselves. The hands are either the driving force of your intellectual life, or they are not. And they make a difference to your perceptions and subsequent response. A craftsman sees a problem, compares it to direct experience, imagines a possible solution for it, and the next impulse isn't to gather with a group of friends in the student union or library for further discussion leading to mind numbing research proving or disproving the obvious. We, and I'm including you in this, go to our workshops and make. That is essentially why I try to do as much demonstration and visual illustration as possible in the blog. What is an idea that isn't followed by direct action? Empty conjecture. We craftsmen have the unique predisposition to take matters into our own hands.

When I began my discussions with wood shop teachers about the fate of woodworking education, as a craftsman myself, I knew that to sit on the sidelines and whine would not lead us toward a solution. So in September 2001 I started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School. In that program I teach kids grades 1-12 using a woodworking curriculum that unites the wood shop with classroom studies in every area of school curriculum. From that experience, I have written woodworking education articles for six different magazines and the Fine Woodworking website.

There is a difference between an academic and a craftsman. The matter has to do with the hands, and the way the hands position a person in direct vs. indirect relation to concrete reality. If your toilet won't flush, do you call a post-doc or a plumber? If you really want to know about craftsmanship, you will need to talk to a craftsman.


  1. Anonymous6:45 AM

    Your line about who to call if the toilet doesn't work is probably the best of the year! This at a time when there's a shortage of plumbers, masons and other trades workers.


  2. R. Francis, You are obviously intelligent and have some value to add to the conversation. I would welcome your comments if you chose not to use them to insult. Resubmit your comment without your last sentence and it will be added.

    In the future, if you choose to participate, please moderate your commentary to be considerate of others.

  3. Is this the same book?
    The excellent Fiona MacCarthy, author of biographies of some of the greatest craftsmen (Byron: Life and Legend (2004)
    William Morris: A Life for Our Time (1995)
    Eric Gill (1989)
    British Design Since 1880: A Visual History (1982)
    The Simple Life: C.R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds (1981)
    All Things Bright and Beautiful; Design in Britain, 1830 to Today (1972)) praises Sennett's great intelligence and ability. She notes"

    Sennett views Ruskin, unforgettably, as a man deeply aware of his own sensations and experience, making the appeal we might today describe as "get back in touch with your body". Ruskin observed in Stones of Venice the draughtsman stopping, fumbling, losing temporary control over his work only to resume with new confidence. These are magic human moments no machines can replicate. Sennett makes a case for such "lost spaces of freedom": spaces in which craftsmen can experiment with ideas and techniques, risk mistakes and hold-ups, lose themselves to find themselves. "This is a condition for which people will have to fight in modern society," he writes. Indeed it is.

    Sennett alters one's view of craftsmanship by finding so much meaning in the detail. The grip on the pencil, the pressure on the chisel: he persuades us that these things have real significance. The Craftsman is one of a trilogy, with volumes to come on ritual and craft, and craft and the environment. This first instalment is so good it will be difficult to wait.

  4. Thank you for broadening our view of Sennett's book. I will look forward to reading it.

  5. I, also, found the written quality of Sennett's work fuzzy at times-perhaps the sort of thing that a different editor could have honed. And I would have appreciated the ideas actually being more closely aligned to the actual work of hands with more discussion about art and design. Yet, this book was my first introduction to a deep history of craft, however eurocentric. Having read my library copy, I immediately bought a copy of my own and started a second reading.