By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
RICHMOND -- Matt Crawford, philosopher and gearhead, author of the surprise bestseller "Shop Class as Soulcraft," is in his one-man motorcycle repair shop. It's late on a Friday afternoon. He's draining a can of Miller Lite. He's got a shop full of problems, this 1976 Honda CB-550, that 1967 BMW R50/2, the 1984 Yamaha FJ-1100 on the lift.
He's a brainiac, this slender 43-year-old with the ropey veins lacing his forearms, the brown hair and the soft voice. Grew up on a California commune, got a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. Once had an academic office next to J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel laureate in literature. Former executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute on K Street. Currently a fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
But never mind all that. He's onto something big in "Shop Class," something about how the national culture has gotten so disdainful of physical labor that it is losing some basic precepts of how to live a contented (and competent) life. The book was released last month and has already sold about 25,000 copies in hardcover. It has been among the top 25 on the New York Times bestseller list.
"There's this false dichotomy out there between intellectual work and manual work," he's saying. "The popular image of the plumber is just the butt crack," not that of a skilled tradesman who sets his own hours, figures out complex problems on the fly and probably earns more than most of his clients. Plus, there's that satisfaction of imposing one's will and intellect on the physical world, to immediate effect.
But shop classes are disappearing from high schools, Crawford laments, replaced by computer labs. Nobody knows how to fix anything anymore. People want to be "knowledge workers" with college degrees who sit in cubicles, looking down on the tradesmen who make the undergirdings of their lives possible. Vacuum cleaners no longer come with the schematics; who wants them? Some new Mercedes-Benz cars do not have dipsticks, making it difficult for the owner to carry out the simple task of maintaining the oil level.
"We now like our things not to disturb us," he writes. And: "We view human beings as inferior versions of computers."
He's not being an anti-intellectual knucklehead, and he's not extolling the proletarian values of digging a ditch. He's talking about manual competence, of being able to do things with our hands as well as our minds.
He's hitting a nerve, at least in some parts of the country. Nielsen BookScan reports that two-thirds of his sales are in the suburbs.
"A lot of people in white-collar activity can often feel a distance from . . . a craft or some kind of work that you can put some aspect of yourself into," says Joshua J. Yates, associate director of the institute at U-Va., who helped select Crawford for the program four years ago. "It ebbs and flows in the culture, but there's clearly a resonance to what he's found and been able to articulate."
So let's see the man himself at work.
Let's walk across the shop floor with Crawford to this 1967 BMW, a vintage piece of two-wheeled Bavarian engineering. Customer brought it in, it hadn't run for years. Didn't even know why. Among other problems, the bike's exhaust pipe had been taken off, but the connection between the pipe and the cylinder head had been mangled in the process.
The problem -- he drops to his knees to illustrate the point on the undercarriage -- see? There? He didn't have the tool needed to loosen the steel collar that bound the pipe to the cylinder head.
So he made one.
He took a 20-inch steel rod and warmed one end in a kerosene heater. He kept it there until he could bend that end of the rod into a curve, like a question mark. He drilled a hole in the curved end and inserted a screw into that hole. The screw was the size needed to fit the nuts on the collar that would hold the exhaust pipe to the cylinder head. In this way he could loop the curved end of the rod around the circular exhaust pipe, insert the screw into the nuts, and, one by one, use the long end of the rod to twist them off. This technique loosened the collar and allowed a new exhaust pipe to be put on correctly.
"It took about 20 minutes."
This modest feat -- analyzing a mechanical problem, picturing what kind of tool could solve it, then fashioning the tool to repair it -- this is the type of small but critical competence missing from modern life, he says. The issue is not so much whether it is manual or physical labor, but whether your work demands use of your personal skills and judgment. If it doesn't, then you're on an assembly line, no matter how crisply starched your shirt is.
"If your job makes you so miserable that you have to go out and buy a bunch of [expletive] to cheer yourself up, then perhaps the work really isn't worth it."
On what's good about the trades: "the artistry of repairing things that present themselves as a mystery."
What's really good about the trades: With computer technology making it possible to do intellectual work from almost anywhere, the people who can't be outsourced are the local tradesmen, artisans and mechanics who repair your car and fix your sink.
Fred Cousins, who ran a small but precise motorcycle repair shop in Chicago, remembers Crawford coming in with one of his first bike projects. Crawford was no master mechanic, Cousins says, and was laboring away on a bike that "would never be worth $2,000." But the veteran could tell that the rookie had an appreciation for the art form.
"Here was a regular guy doing serious work for the reward of learning," Cousins wrote in an e-mail. "Here was someone who wanted to ask questions."
Crawford has worked as a car mechanic, as an electrician, as a motorcycle mechanic and in several "knowledge worker" jobs. This last category never seemed to work out well. Not much mystery, he says. Dumbed down. He hated working as a law clerk, hated writing abstracts of articles in scientific journals and really hated his time on K Street, as executive director of the Marshall Institute, an energy-policy think tank, about seven years ago. He doesn't name the institute in the book, but here was his assessment:
"The trappings of scholarship were used to put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise. . . . [P]art of my job consisted of making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank," he writes.
He quit after five months.
(Jeff Kueter, president of the Marshall Institute, politely says that Crawford's assessment is "completely incorrect.")
He moved down to Richmond and opened his cycle shop, Shockoe Moto (named for the area of town in which it was first opened). His wife had a job with health insurance, so he settled into working on old motorcycles and thinking about why we, as a culture, seem to be getting more educated but able to do less.
He wrote a magazine essay with the same title as the book three years ago, got a book offer and spent the past two years thinking through the slim volume. He quotes Aristotle, Marx, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, sociologist Richard Sennett, economist Alan Blinder and books like "Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century," "Principles of Scientific Management," "How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning" and the July 2007 edition of Motor Cyclist magazine.
He was as surprised as anybody when it started selling.
"My first book. You fantasize people might want to read it."
The book carries the full title "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work," a subtle play on the 1974 classic, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values." Robert M. Pirsig's book was a sprawling philosophical search into what "quality" and "the good" meant and tracked Pirsig's personal odyssey through mental illness and the relationship with his son. The book became a cultural touchstone, with its ideal of achieving something beautiful through the ordinary tasks of motorcycle repair.
Crawford, who says he started but never finished "Zen," is after something different.
He's ready to close up the shop for the afternoon -- it's getting late, the wife and kids are waiting -- but a good job, good work, he's saying, is about learning from your labors, not just occupying a desk. It's about figuring things out, of bringing your talents to bear on a physical problem right in front of you and making it right. A faulty carburetor. A bum air-conditioning unit. Assembling the new grill you picked up for the back patio.
"The really glorious moment to a trade, to any skill," Crawford says, pulling the doors to, turning out the light, "is when you throw away the manual and figure it out yourself."