Gearhead Philosophers


Book Cover.Crawford.Shop ClassWhat would you expect from a book by a trained philosopher who quit his job as a Washington think tank shill (I almost said “tankard”) to work as a motorcycle mechanic?

If you know anything about the academic job market, you might think I have things backwards. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that a professional philosopher ended up—or rather, started out—rebuilding motorcycle engines. But philosophers do strange things. And Matthew Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, is a good example.

Crawford is the author of  a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I learned about his book from a “Tweet” (i.e., a Twitter post) linking to a review of the book by a  Slate contributor named Michael Agger. The article, titled “Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” praises the book and suggests that a copy be given to everyone you know who is graduating from college and about to “commence real life.” (Never mind that a majority of college graduates postpone commencing real life, some of them indefinitely.)

Every year, grads take jobs they’ve dreamed about, then become so absorbed in them that they are absorbed by them, little noticing that their work is not particularly absorbing in the sense that matters most. Crawford’s book is supposed to get office grunts, from secretaries to CEO’s, to consider more carefully the work they’re doing.

Of course, this year a much higher percentage of college graduates will look in vain for jobs that they believe will satisfy. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they’ll have time for some profitable reading. A book like this could help them get their heads together. Soulcraft versus bank draft. It’s an interesting contrast. Leave it to a philosopher to subvert the values of our age.

Two questions. What does any of this have to do with motorcycle maintenance? And what does it have to do with Heidegger?

The first question, presumably, is answered in the book. Crawford the philosopher became Crawford the disillusioned “knowledge worker,” which led him to become Crawford the motorcycle mechanic. And Crawford the motorcycle mechanic, who had apparently dropped out of the knowledge enterprise, learned what was of real value where life intersects work.

The answer to the second question isn’t obvious from reading the Slate article. There’s no attempt in the article to tie Crawford’s ideas and conclusions to the work of any philosopher named Heidegger. One naurally assumes that Agger is thinking of the Heidegger, as in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). But Agger doesn’t connect the dots. Maybe he just latched onto the name of the first philosopher he thought of. Heidegger is not known for his luminosity—nor for motorcycle expertise. So Agger’s choice of a title may be bad in more ways than one. On the other hand, there’s the possibility (admittedly remote) that Crawford draws valuable concrete lessons for life from one of the most austere philosophers of the past 100 years.

So far I’ve only read about the book. But I’m definitely interested. And if Crawford leaves Heidegger out of it, even more so.

***

Notes:

  1. Michael Agger is also playing off the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1973 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe there’s a subtle connection between Heidegger, Zen, and motorcycle maintenance that escapes me just now. If so, my apologies to Michael Agger.
  2. As I write this, Shop Class as Soulcraft is #30 in sales rank at Amazon.
  3. Kudos for Crawford’s book include the following by Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield: “Matt Crawford’s remarkable book on the morality and metaphysics of the repairman looks into the reality of practical activity. It is a superb combination of testimony and reflection, and you can’t put it down.” (Source: Amazon.com)
  4. As long as we’re onto Heidegger here, I should note that there’s an interesting BBC documentary on the man that’s available on YouTube, starting with this 8-minute installment here.

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Michael Dirda on “The Knowledge Most Worth Having”


My education in the value of the personal essay probably began in a time and space I don’t recall. But I was compelled to appreciate this specialized form of literature most memorably during my reading of Philip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The enthusiasm inspired by his anthology resulted in a welcome appetite for more of the same. Lopate’s genius for selecting the best of the breed was proven by the difficulty I experienced during my search for collections of comparable value. The annual publication of books in The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan, sometimes approximates the Lopate standard. And there are other worthy collections. Thankfully, my quest for the best has put me in touch with individual authors, contemporary essayists of the first rank, whose writing is consistently creative, wise, and ennobling.

My favorite contemporary essayists include Michael Dirda, Joseph Epstein, John Updike, and many others. This post loiters in one section of one essay from Michael dirdabook-by-bookDirda’s book Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. The essay is titled “The Pleasures of Learning,” and the section I’ve isolated for consideration here is called “The Knowledge Most Worth Having.” This section consists of seven sentences, followed by a list of sixteen items, and a concluding sentence that reads:

Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.

Clearly, Dirda’s reference to “the knowledge most worth having” is circumscribed by a specific purpose. He doesn’t mean to catalog all that it is most important to know. More precisely, he asks, “What should a person know of the world’s literature?” This question presupposes that some works are more worthy of our time and meditation than others, and that if we are to have a “structured reading program” we must have a criterion for determining which works are most deserving. Dirda gives us a criterion and then “a roughly chronological short  list of those that the diligent might read in a year or two.” Both the criterion and the list are interesting.

Dirda’s criterion—the test he uses in deciding which authors and which works are most rewarding for the reader who would attain a knowledge of the world’s literature—is simple. Devote yourself to those works “that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against.”  Dirda does not elaborate on the principle, except to bestow a name on works that meet this condition; they are “the great patterning works.”

For further insight into the principle, we might consider Dirda’s list. He does not claim that it’s exhaustive. Actually, he implies that it is not. It’s a place to begin. Still, it’s a comfort to hear that “there aren’t many of these key books,” and it’s enticing to be told that “they aren’t all obvious classics.” One might spend a year or two in the company of these books, and then move on to others.

Before I reveal the list, I want to ask, again, what is the point of the list? It is to commend works with the potential to crack open the world of great literature. These works have this power because other authors have built on them, alluded to them, and worked against them. They are, in other words, touchstones for so much great literature that our capacity to appreciate and know the greatness of other works is unlocked by our acquaintance with these.

Now to the list. It is no surprise that it begins with

  • The Bible (Old and New Testaments)

Dirda recommends the Authorized, or King James, Version because it’s “the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of English prose.” As a kid, I attended a Baptist Sunday School that used the King James Bible in Bible lessons, Scripture memory, and “sword drills.” (Incidentally, I never heard anyone seriously proffer a defense of the KJV on the grounds that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” My Sunday school teachers were far more sophisticated than that.) In the third grade, taught by my mother, we children were awarded Bibles of our own—the King James Version, of course. Shortly after that, the production of new English translations began in earnest, and today the original KJV of 1611 is little known, even by those who know the Bible. I’m a proponent of the multiple versions doctrine, that individual versions or translations have their distinctive virtues, and that more than one should be consulted in the serious study of the Bible. But Dirda is hardly alone in proclaiming the incomparable linguistic beauty and legendary influence of the KJV, and I do not disagree. (For those interested in the translation debate, I recommend D. A. Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.)

Next on the list:

The items listed by Dirda are not annotated. He doesn’t say why an entry meets the criterion he’s adopted. But some source containing the ancient myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse provenance is a no-brainer, and Bulfinch’s is the industry standard. Oddly, my copy of the generally reliable Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (mine is the 3rd edition) has no entry for this classic collection. But then, neither does my handy paperback copy of The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. No matter. The important thing is that allusions to mythologies abound in acknowledged “great literature.” The reason for this is worthy of contemplation, but beyond the scope of this post.

Fine. If ancient mythologies must be known on the grounds that they are sources for innumerable allusions, then Homer’s influence is no less significant. The Ionian poet as a man is a mystery. Even his actual existence is doubted. The story of the composition, preservation, and function of “Homer” among the ancient Greeks is interesting in its own right, and is told with clarity uncompromised by brevity in . . . Benét’s.

We begin to suspect that the influence of the ancients runs deep in our literature. Plutarch, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, is best known as a biographer. It’s an irony of history and of literature that little is known about Plutarch himself—no biographer for the biographer. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch in two of his great plays. (Plutarch was, by the way, a master of the personal essay, and his compendium, the Moralia, has survived to please readers to this day.)

So far, Dirda’s choices are obvious. Of course Dante. But why the Inferno and not the whole the the Divine Comedy? Dirda doesn’t declare. So let’s speculate. The Inferno is the first part of the Divine Comedy. So maybe you read the first part and can’t put it down. Or you do put it down, but you’ve had enough Dante for the purposes envisioned by Dirda. Imaginative writing about hell does make for scintillating writing. For some, heaven is boring in comparison, and a proffered reason for indifference about the soul’s destiny. Strange logic.

Next in line:

I confess that I was initially surprised by this entry from the early Middle Ages. But I shouldn’t have been. This is our source for Ali Baba, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and the phrase “Open Sesame” (which appeals to our get-rich-quick aspirations). The story of Sultan Shahriar and his clever wife Shaharazad is endlessly intriguing. But a guide to The Arabian Nights would be useful, if only because of its length.

The Middle Ages brings to mind the next fairly obvious choice:

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)

Seeing the Monty Python movie is no substitute for reading the book. Take my word for it. But it does give a sense of the book that is somewhat surprising. (Take that with a grain of salt.) The written tales were probably composed in prison by a chap who commended the ideals  of chivalry and was notorious for violating those same ideals. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was very much taken with these tales, and transcribed them into epic poetry in his Idylls of the King. Here is a clear case where one legendary author, the Victorian poet Tennyson, is understood better against background knowledge of a 15th century author of legend.

You knew he had to show up on the list eventually, and if you’ve been following the chronology, you may have suspected his appearance at any moment—William Shakespeare.

Some of these have been quite respectably adapted for film. Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990) finally made sense of “words, words, words” to me. The Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight (1965), featuring Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, was a favorite of Welles and is generally thought to be one of his greatest movies.

There have been a dozen or more adaptations of King Lear. Most celebrated is the 1983 version starring Laurence Olivier and Dianna Rigg. Another cinematic reprise is planned. How would you like to see Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the three daughters of King Lear, played by Anthony Hopkins? It’s in the works. So now is an especially auspicious time to have a read of the original King Lear.

Film or television adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were released in 1935, 1968, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Enough said.

An adaptation of The Tempest is said to be in production. It won’t be the first. The Tempest was first “screened” in 1905, in a two-and-a-half minute production. The play enjoyed a science fiction adaptation in 1956 in the film The Forbidden Planet. Other adaptations were screened in 1982, 1991, 1992 (in animation that is faithful to Shakespeare).

These works by Shakespeare are immortal. The enjoyment of a worthy film adaptation is enriched by a reading of Shakepeare himself.

Michael Dirda’s list continues. But here the entries shade into the controversial.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra introduced his dubious but endearing hero, the Man of La Mancha, in two volumes (1605 and 1616). Cervantes is credited by many as the first modern novelist. Since he died in 1616, that’s quite a distinction. The only thing controversial about including Don Quixote on Dirda’s short list is that the list is so short. Some would argue that the inclusion of Don Quixote obliges the inclusion of some other great work not on the list. But the fact is, this grand novel supremely fits Dirda’s criterion. If you disagree, you’re tilting at windmills.

A shade more controversial are

and

Defoe wrote something like 250 works. They call that prolific. Businessman, journalist, government representative, spy, possibly even double agent, but best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Through this depiction of a solitary figure stranded on an island, we learn how noble men might conduct themselves under such conditions. Crusoe is an admirable figure, with lessons to teach us all. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like, what we would do, what we would become, if we were to live in such forced seclusion?

Swift was a genius. As evidence for this, I take the liberty of quoting:

Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the sole major work in all English literature that has continuously led a double life: it has been at once one of the most glamorous of children’s adventure stories and one of the most pungent critiques of humanity addressed to the mature imagination. This almost incredible marriage of opposites is possible because in the main the disturbing satire for adults lurks inconspicuously behind the pleasantly exciting façade of the explorer’s tale; the child can rarely see behind the façade, and the adult can never cease seeing behind it or trying to pierce through it. Further, there are times when Swift is entirely concerned with the façade—of the elaboration of the details of the story for its own sake . . . and the presence of such passages assists the young reader—or the unperceptive reader generally—to take the whole story at the simplest level of meaning. . . . Swift’s obvious enjoyment of playing the game—of unusual sizes, mysterious phenomena, and strangely shaped creatures—gives zest to his narrative without in any way impeding him when he chooses to make the game philosophical. (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 226)

Dirda’s inclusion of Gulliver’s Travels is vindicted by the suggestion that this satire “draws upon at least five traditions of world literature,” and the claim that “the use of fantasy for serious statement, virtually eliminated by two centuries of emphasis upon realism, is reappearing in our own day” (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 229).

Dirda goes on to add items undeniably suited to his premise. But these, I confess, lie at the periphery of my own reading interests:

and

Fairy tales and folk tales. Their influence has been great. My interest is negligible. For the record, the noted study of folklore and human society is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

The final three works are perhaps the most controversial choices. Again, one could argue that some other work is more worthy of inclusion on such a list.

I believe a rationale may be built for each of these entries. Notice, Jane Austin is the only woman to be valorized on the basis of Dirda’s criterion. Some readers might object to this. I know some writers would have filled in with other great female authors just to avoid the appearance of impropriety and escape censure by enforcers of political correctness. But this is Dirda’s list.

There should be considerable pride in and no prejudice against the admission of Jane Austin to the august company of writers of seminal importance. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a bad pun or a contradiction in terms.) In 2003, the BBC sponsored a program called The Big Read, in quest of “the nation’s best-loved novel.” Pride and Prejudice was voted #2, after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect many titles voted onto the Top 100 list for The Big Read found their way there with the help of recent cinematic adaptations. But Dirda’s basis for including Jane Austin’s novel isn’t current popularity but lasting influence in the field of literature.

Lewis Carroll has to be acknowledged, even by someone without predilections for his plotting and style. Alice in Wonderland falls into that class of fairy tales and folklore that have little appeal for me.

As for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m completely sympathetic with ranking it high on a list of entertaining and well-crafted fiction. I would even consider bringing Holmes along for my island exile. I’m less sure of the application of Michael Dirda’s criterion for educating ourselves in preparation for mastery of the world’s great literature. Doyle’s imagination, plotting, and writing style are both creditable and inimitable. But there are others. Agatha Christie has sold better—much better, in fact. Edgar Allen Poe is the acknowledged inventor of the mystery story, and is the namesake for the Edgar Award in mystery fiction. I suppose that Doyle gets the nod because Sherlock Holmes is the paradigmatic sleuth, the one who comes to mind first when that special expertise is needed. Fair enough.

So there you have it. A criterion and a list. I’ve tried to make sense of Dirda’s choices. Using his criterion, and limited to sixteen items, I think he succeeds.

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Music Mania and Doing Good: Big Things Come in Small Packages


The iPod. The iPhone. Nifty little devices for packing huge inventories of favorite music. In the world of technology, small is BIG—at least some of the time. But today we find out just how BIG small can be. Apple, the people who invented the iPod and the iPhone, announced today that they are #1 in music retail in America. Wal-Mart has left the building; Apple is the new elephant in the room.

How big an elephant are we talking about? Apple has sold 4 billion songs (give or take) to more than 50 million people in this country over the past five years. Let’s do some math. Four billion divided by fifty million equals eighty. So, on average, American customers have purchased 80 songs from Apple. Since tunes go for 99 cents in most cases, that’s roughly $80 per customer, over five years. So $16 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But fifty million customers cranks that figure up to nearly four billion dollars since Apple opened the iTunes music store. A nominal expenditure of financial energy on the part of a sufficient number of people yields an enviable cache of, well . . . cash.

Only 16% of all Americans achieved this result. Sixteen people for every 100 hundred Americans spent $16 on tunes each year for five years, and Apple garnished $4 billion.

Big things come in small packages, if you have enough small packages. But “enough” small packages can be a relatively small percentage of the total pool of possible contributors. In this case, Apple can generate an influx of $4 billion dollars from a relatively small percentage of Americans who love their music to the tune of about $80 each.

One lesson in this is that when enough people care just a little bit about something, and they show that they care with a modicum of energy, big things can happen. Apple has literally been banking on that.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most Americans, when they click for a new iTunes purchase, are not thinking, “I sure hope there are a bunch of other Americans out there doing the same thing; otherwise, this just wouldn’t be worth my trouble.” They act for a limited good over which they have considerable control. But because lots of other people do the same thing, Apple is a big winner.

How often do we consider performing some action that would produce only a limited good (something we value), but we refrain simply because the good we can produce by ourselves seems too puny to bother? What if we interpreted our action differently? What if we decided to act for the limited good over which we have some significant control? What if we forgot about whether anyone else cares as much as we do about realizing that good? If we all did that, maybe big things—good big things—would happen.

Having a new three-minute tune to tickle my tympanic membrane is a limited good. I’ll shell out 99 cents for that, now and then. Budgeting $16 a year for this is within reason for most Americans. We manage our music mania pretty well. But it’s only music, after all, piped in through our iBooks, iPods, or iPhones. Surely there are greater goods we could each achieve with the same modicum of expenditure. So what are we waiting for? What good thing would you do, if only enough other people would do it, too?

Tell you what. I won’t wait for you, if you won’t wait for me.

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