Entering this book is like stepping into the middle of a conversation. It can be disorienting at times, but I think there’s a point to it that’s best emphasized by Crawford’s discussion of an organ making / restoration company. We are all entering in the middle of a conversation. We are all standing on the shoulders of those giants. He’s right when he says that these days we think creativity depends on a lightning strike; it’s untrue.

I was pleased that Crawford’s subtitle, “On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction,” was not just about technology. He regrets our reliance on representations of the world – texting someone rather than talking to them face-to-face, for example – but he’s more interested in the distance that’s developing between us and sensation in, for example, cars. This leads him to one of the best sentences ever –

The basic design intention guiding Mercedes in the last ten years seems to be that its cars should offer psychic blow jobs to the affluent.

Hands-free driving? Are you kidding me? I’m not ready to yield to the notion that taking out seat belts would make us more cautious drivers, but I see his point.

Part of Crawford’s charm is that he’s able to quote both Kant and Springsteen in the same paragraph and make it work. Unfortunately, in the end, he lapses into the familiar lament that more of education needs to be hands-on without considering that the last time we did this, all of the boys and particularly the boys of color, ended up in shop class. Also, he neglects the more abstract life of the mind and dismisses it as having no value in its connection to the world. I wonder what he would say to President Obama’s comments here (Obama interviews Marilynne Robinson) —

Interviewing Marilynne Robinson in the second instalment of a two-part interview for the New York Review of Books (also available as audio), the American president asked the author if she was worried about people not reading novels anymore, as they are “overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time”. For himself, Obama said, “when I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels”.

“It has to do with empathy,” Obama told Robinson in a conversation which is published in the 19 November issue of the New York Review of Books. “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”
Shop Class as Soulcraft is the better book; this one continues the conversation (as it should). Join it.
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