Shop Class as Soulcraft

Three explanations suggest themselves as to why the release of Shop Class as Soulcraft has been greeted with such excitement and praise. First, the book provides the pleasure of reading challenging philosophy in the context of several kinds of narrative: the story of Crawford’s vocational crisis and its eccentric resolution; the background narrative of the survival of places where work remains a craft even in an era of outsourced mass production and the reign of office culture; bizarre war stories from grimy motorcycle garages and speed shops; and intricate accounts of how tough mechanical problems get solved. Second, the book is an interdisciplinary tour de force, engaging such diverse subjects as the history of American higher education, personnel management theory, the subprime mortgage crisis, Aristotle’s account of happiness, Taylorization, occupational prestige, and the nature of creativity. Third, the book carries with it an air of needing to be written. As Crawford correctly says, he is attempting to do for manual labor what Michael Pollan did for local food and Wendell Berry did for the meaning of agricultural land.

Crawford reveals information about himself only occasionally and then in fragments, thereby adding significant narrative tension to his book. By the end, if one has read carefully, an unusual portrait emerges. In an endnote to the first chapter, Crawford writes: My circumstances were a bit unusualI lived in a commune from age nine to fifteen. Because the group picked up and moved every six months, there was constant renovation work on whatever dilapidated hotel we currently occupied. The electrical crew needed somebody small to fit into tight crawl spaces and drafted me.

He thus became a skilled electrician, and his reflections on this trade play an important role in his argument. In the concluding chapter, for example, he includes a vignette that begins: “When I was sixteen, I traveled to India by myself.” At first, the thronging, stinking city repelled him, but the sight of Indian workers preparing to pull wire through a conduit allows him a foothold in the chaos: “The oppressive sense that I was a foreigner among foreigners evaporated as I projected myself imaginatively into their day, into this very moment.” His feeling of solidarity with these laborers had a specificity that, he later realized, had ethical significance, because it was so much denser than abstract ideas of “humanity” or “universal obligation.”

Other details about Crawford’s life gradually surface over the course of his essays. His father, Frank S. Crawford, Jr., was a physicist at the University of California. Matthew attended Berkeley High School and studied physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also had his own electrician business. Meanwhile, the charms of automobile and motorcycle mechanics continued to pull at him. After completing a master’s degree in the history of political philosophy at the University of Chicago, Crawford found employment in Silicon Valley as a writer of abstracts for the Ziff Corporation, owner of the Info-Trac indexing service. He also taught high school for a time.

Once his Ph.D. work at Chicago was finished, Craford received a fellowship to turn his dissertation into a book. Despairing of finding a teaching position and bored with his editing job, he turned back to fixing and restoring motorcycles. For a year, he headed a think tank in Washington, D.C., whose task was to shape the results of climate-change research to fit the needs of its sponsors. Put off by that enterprise, he opened Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. He presently remains there, while also serving as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is dedicated to Crawford’s wife and daughters, as well as to his late father. This latter gesture is curious because the book is full of accounts of quarrels between Crawford and this father, as if to justify his own life path. Frank Crawford commented on particular mechanical problems his son encountered by referencing formulas and deductions from mathematical physics. Matthew could not apply these, however, because the thick, dusty, caked reality of specific repair situations requires a different kind of knowledge. Thus, trying to use Ohm’s Lawwhich neatly coordinates the relations between voltage, current, and resistanceto coax a spark from a recalcitrant plug only produces frustration. Unlike the physicist, the mechanic must contend with subtle changes in humidity, temperature, and tensile strength, as well as the mistakes of earlier mechanics. More useful for Crawford is “tacit knowledge,” which “seems to consist of recognizing...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)


Library Journal 134, no. 8 (May 1, 2009): 94.

The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 2009, p. 15.

The New Yorker 85, no. 18 (June 22, 2009): 83-87.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 16 (April 20, 2009): 45.

Time 173, no. 22 (June 8, 2009): 18.

The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2009, p. A19.