For the first week I decided to read “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. Overall, the book itself is not light reading. I didn’t fly through the pages even though this was my second read of the book. Sennett is an academic and he writes like an academic. That is to say, densely. That being said, the book itself is a contradiction. Sennett is seeking to elevate the use of the “hands” (practice) to the same level as the “head” (theory) but in doing so he writes a theoretical book. In doing so, it is a fundamentally anti-elitist book and is useful in the current political climate where the university educated may tend to look down on the “working class”.
Without dwelling too much on the negatives of the book (of which there are many, not the least the many rambling passages where Sennett tries to create a theory of everything craftsmanship) some of of the technical sections and advice within the book are excellent. My main takeaways were:
- Errors are crucial to the making process. Without error correcting the craftsman never receives any feedback as to his technique. This then separates theory from practice in many situations, the theoretician is never confronted with their errors and as such is not forced to go through a process of refinement.
- It is important to release tension and pressure. Skilled craftsman are relaxed craftsman. Don’t strain.
- When using a tool, seek to use the minimum force in order to get the job done. Be delicate.
- Many skills are transferable across domains but we tend to tunnel vision on the specific application. What looks like great leaps in one domain can often be recast as the application of a technique from a second domain to the first.
- CAD should be used consciously. Many of the worst design mistakes in architecture have come from architects overusing CAD and not taking into account how the building will fit into it’s local surroundings. CAD has the effect of separating the physicality of an object from it’s representation on the screen.
- When seeking to improve our technique we will often need to unlearn bad habits. What works well at one skill level may not necessarily work well at another.
- All practice isn’t created equally, there is good practice and bad practice. Repetition tends to reinforce what is being repeated.
- It is better to work with a material than against it. Don’t fight battles you don’t need to and don’t try to force something to be what it isn’t.
- Advances come from difficulties and frustrations. The worst thing for the craftsman is to have no constraints placed upon them. You must be willing to work through the frustration to solve a problem, this will spur creativity.
- But, too much resistance and frustration will cause you to shut down. There exists an “optimal” level of frustration. I see this as analogous to flow states.
- It is important to focus on quality for it’s own sake. In many domains no-one will know except the master that they have cut corners. As such, it’s important for the master to have their own standards of the work they’re prepared to put out into the world.
- Repair is just as important as making. Being able to repair something implies a much fuller understanding than just making itself. There are two types of repair, static and dynamic. Static repair returns an item to its original state. Dynamic repair takes and item and turns it into something new.
You’ll notice that the best bits of the book are all practical observations of practice. This is where Sennett is at, in my opinion, his best. Where he’s at his worst is the theoretical passages where he tries to draw together everything from children’s play to democracy to diplomacy to religion. In this sense, the academic roots come to the fore and Sennett’s prose is tediously long.
Overall, now that I’ve written a summary of the book I don’t see the need to go back to it. There are some gems in there which arise from Sennett’s observations of craftsmanship but these gems are buried in a lot of dross.
At the moment I’m still waiting for the next set of books to arrive which appear to be arriving out of the original reading order and be slightly delayed. A little trick that I found quite useful was to use an index card as a bookmark and write down thoughts on the card as I was going. This made it much easier to review in the end.
Overall, a 3/5