The Case For Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford

A book about the value of getting your hands dirty, written for an audience for whom calluses are alien.

Naively, as someone who finds office environments difficult, and who enjoys making things – sewing, painting, papier mâché etcetera – I thought this book would be a self-help guide which would talk me through all the ‘bad for us’ parts of the office.

Books and covers and all that. Turns out, it’s actually a philosophy book, which isn’t at all about offices – despite the title. I think therefore I am; I work therefore I have meaning. Or something like that.

The single chapter on ‘The Contradictions of the Cubicle’ doesn’t really talk about cubicles. It discusses the contrast between an employee’s idea of purpose and their manager and/or employer’s idea of purpose. Personally I don’t think having one boring office job which you didn’t want to be doing in the first place is a good enough reason for ruling all office work out for the entire human population, but hey.

Matthew Crawford’s strength is the stories: the screw-ups, the dreams, the disasters, the romance. Tales illustrating what it actually feels like to be a motorbike mechanic, what it feels like to bond with a machine (I’m visualising of Rossi kneeling by his bike pre-race) and why it’s such a difficult feeling to cultivate in modern society.

As a philosophy book it was enjoyable, but lacked daring. I wanted more provocation. It asks the same sort of questions I ask of myself, and this isn’t really enough. I want pushing more. It questioned the value of the exam orientated education system, but it didn’t really offer enough of an alternative. We can’t all be motorbike mechanics.

The style in which it’s written makes me feel that the average reader would buy it, but never finish it. Despite my university education, the vocabulary was testing and there were times when I wondered what the point was the author was getting at.

I give you this example :

“For the neo-Darwinian, the frolicking of the dolphin is assumed to have some survival value, either for the preservation of the individual, or the passing on of its genes. I suspect, if you were to ask the dolphin, he would say it is backwards: he lives in order to frolic, he doesn’t frolic in order to live.”

I suspect most dolphins, if asked, would frolic because frolicking is what dolphins do.

Have you ever wanted to have a more hands-on job?

As a reader, do you agree?

We look to novels and pictures to compensate us for the deficiencies of real life. The type of novel that is most satisfying to a person will therefore give us a clue to the wants which, in real life, that person is unable to express and gratify. (People often give away more information about themselves than they realize when they talk about their favourite novels and pictures.)

Do you agree?

Psychology for Everyman (and Woman) by A. E. Mander

The quote comes from the Thinker’s Library, No. 48, Psychology for Everyman (and Woman) written by A. E. Mander and first published 1935. The 14th edition (which I am currently reading), printed in 1948, is a tiny book with a hard red cover that conformed to the war economy standards. The book is as tall as the length of my palm.

As an avid reader, it intrigued me. Do you agree or disagree with the statement? If you too share my love of books, what is it your reading habits say about you?

If, for a moment, we surmise that the statement is true, what do we learn? You can view my recommended reading list to see the books I love the most, but this only includes the substantive books that I feel have changed me.

I often read books that don’t fit within the stereotype of chic lit, does this suggest I have an unsatisfied desire to feel superior? Of course ideally I wouldn’t believe that there’s anything superior in being the person reading Plato over the person reading the Hunger Games, yet… well it’s difficult to change a belief isn’t it. Especially one that says what your ego wants to hear.

If I take a look at the pile of books on the table in front of me, two are about travel – a want to escape perhaps – another is Gandhi’s autobiography. Do I take Gandhi as a leader who I wish to emulate, or are the intellectual books my way of mimicking the real intellectual readers of my social group? By reading widely, am I trying to associate myself with those writers I adore, the ones who instruct in every piece of writing advice ever written, read, read, read.

Are my reading choices dictated by a wish to be respected. Certainly, since going down the path of marketing – which like it or not is stigmatised – I’ve read books with ideas that take longer to mull over. Am I compensating for the awe I use to receive or is this my obsessive drive to learn and my fascination with the human mind?

The pile of books also includes a book on the evolution of organisations, a book genuinely called ‘Joy at Work’ and a novel by Barbara Kingsolver.

Or is it all bullshit? Am I simply clinging to patterns that don’t exist?

A. E. Mander’s short list of ‘primary wants’

For BODILY COMFORT

For a SENSE OF SECURITY

To ESCAPE

To PROPITATE* anyone who has power to injure: to INTEGRATE oneself

To be (a) NOTICED, (b) ADMIRED and (c) LIKED by others of one’s kind

(a) To HURT and INJURE, (b) To OVERCOME and DOMINATE (c) To feel SUPERIOR

To ATTRACT, PLEASE and MATE with one of the opposite sex

To LOOK AFTER and PROTECT someone (e.g. child or mate) who is relatively weak

For the COMPANY and FELLOW FEELING of others of ones kind

To be LIKE OTHERS of one’s own ‘pack’ or ‘set’, especially its leaders

To CATCH and CAPTURE

To FIND OUT, to KNOW, to UNDERSTAND

To RETURN TO FAMILIAR PEOPLE, PLACES and CONDITIONS

*Win or gain the favour of


What books are you reading, and what do they say about you?

The challenge of reading widely

When a piece of writing has an attitude and throws a different opinion my way, it makes me consider my stance on the world. It’s true for both fiction and non-fiction.

I assume it’s the same for everyone, but how far do you go, how far should you go, to find such writing?

Reading enlightening fiction

My reading list is littered with non-British stories that describe an unfamiliar culture.

Recently, I read Naguib Mahov’s Palace Walk. The story is set during the First World War in Cairo, Egypt. The characters deal with a set of circumstances that are as likely to happen to me as being beamed to the moon in a Star Trek style transporter. Voluntary housebound women don’t fit into that familiar ideal of a ‘strong independent woman’. To them, me, going to work, paying my own rent, living in sin would be just as alien.

It’s an excellent read. Naguib Mahov’s characters are rich, lively and make for an entertaining tale.

I came across the book because I asked my Egyptian friend what Egyptian-centric books he’d recommend.

Not everyone treats reading as an adventure. My friend Maple, who gave me The Hunger Games, reads for escapism. Her shelf is filled with books that are safe, reassuring and can be relied upon not to become too uncomfortable. I don’t believe this is bad, or inferior. Reading is a form of magic that fills many roles within a person’s life. But I can’t help feeling she’s missing out.

Why do you pick the stories you do?

Reading critical non-fiction

I’ve started reading a book of Noam Chomsky’s articles that was leant to me by one of my colleagues after a discussion about inspirational writers. They’re calculated critiques of the media and governments. I understand little of what I read. My knowledge of American politics is what I’ve gleamed listening on conversations between friends and family. My understanding of Barack Obama doesn’t go much past he has a cute dog (I assume the same dog still exists right?). And I’m sure George Bush is a fool (that’s what the media says right?), but the only fact that comes to mind is that he likes to paint.

Not great wisdom have I.

(I can feel the Grandfather despairing.)

But I like that the articles are challenges. They point out the blindness caused by a limited perspective. It’s difficult to verify what I read. I don’t know enough to form my own defined opinions, but from such articles hopefully I will become better at not instinctively accepting the perspective given to me.

It’s telling that this was the book recommended by this particular colleague. He’s a rather sceptical, witty man.

Where do you find writing that inspires and challenges you?

How I read (My struggle with The Hunger Games)

Too intellectual? You’ve got to be joking

I love Star Trek books and historical fiction. I’ve got a fondness for certain physics textbooks, but I’ve never read War and Peace, or the Great Gatsby. I’ve not read Shakespeare* since school.

So do I feel smug or horrified when the Mother describes me as ‘too intellectual’ for the book she’s reading? Is it praise or is she slighting herself? She recommended Hollow Tree House, Little House on the Prairie and Daddy Long-Legs, and they’re all amazing books. It was the Mother who handed me Jane Austen and most of the business-flavoured self-help books I’ve read belong to her.

Can you even be ‘too intellectual’?

Just because you read the words on the page doesn’t mean you understand the depths of their meaning. On the rare occasion one of my literary friends comment on something they’ve been reading, I’m in awe of their insight. They can see why I feel what I feel.

Which is worrying, because how can I expect to write well if I’m blind to the method?

It’s true I like books that challenge me, that make me think. These aren’t necessarily inaccessible books. They aren’t limited to ‘intellectuals’. Plus, who does the Mother think she’s kidding, she’s the one who set me on this trajectory. She’s the one who demonstrated that learning isn’t an activity reserved for children, it’s a lifetime habit.

If I’m ‘too intellectual’ for a story, the Mother most certainly is too.

How to enjoy The Hunger Games

I confess, I struggled to read The Hunger Games.

The struggle wasn’t because it’s not a good book. My young cousin, the Little Mermaid (whose 3 hour abridged telling of the story is available for recital at family dinners) adores it. As does my grown up, married, ex-colleague Maple who kindly gave me my copy.

So if it is ‘good’, why did I struggle?

Because it takes a different method of reading to what I’m used to. Like getting back on the bike, or going out for that first run, it’s harder than it once was.

Which is how I realised that I read differently now.

There’s a pencil in residence beside the bath, and sticky notes peering over the Chekhov sitting on my bedside table. I’m scribbling opinion in the margins, I’m underlining repetition even if I’m not sure why.

This isn’t how one enjoys The Hunger Games. Such a story is for reading under the covers with a bright yellow torch stood up like a lantern; Katniss’s adventures need swallowing whole, like those of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy. The appeal is in the tension, the forward motion. You’ve got to race through it before someone arrives to tell you to turn off the light.

Which no-one does because I’m all grown-up.

With Chekhov I cherish the words and the way they’re sewn together like an elegant tapestry. I reread the same paragraph three times in case there’s anything else hidden there. With The Hunger Games I was frustrated, challenged, bored perhaps. At least until I let go and accepted I didn’t need full sentences, or even every paragraph. A skim of the page was enough. The what happens next.

Once I let go, I was addicted.

Which means now I’m fighting an inner conflict. Was The Hunger Games a good book, or not?

What I’m certain of though is that I’m not ‘too intellectual’ to read it, even if it’s a children’s book. After all, it made me think.

So I have another confession to make. Before I read it, I considered that I might me past such books. That somehow such a story could be beneath me. I was wrong.

How do you read?

*It’s true I’ve watched and loved Julius Caesar, Henry V, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure on stage, but recently when given a list and asked which play I’d prefer to see next I didn’t recognise any of the names–I had to tick all the boxes.

When you have no memory, but plenty of stories

The desolate unfairness of Half of a Yellow Sun makes for a cruel story. My naïvety of world history catches me out when I read such books.

It’s set in Nigeria and the short-lived Biafra. I’ve heard of Lagos, but I hadn’t heard of Biafra of the Igbo people, and I couldn’t have pointed out Nigeria on a map.  I had no awareness of the atrocities I was going to read when I started the book. Yet the book isn’t all dark depressing and horrible. It’s a story of people, families, children and love.

But the backdrop to these relationships is horrendous. Emotionally, I can’t comprehend such unfairness. My brain has been washed with a lukewarm ‘there are people starving in Africa’, but most of the time my world feels no larger than this one-bedroom house or the concrete office block where I work.

My closest understanding of Africa comes from my Egyptian friend, at college in America, my South-Africa colleague, applying for British citizenship, and my obsession with ancient history. To this Africa, I can relate. It’s educated and eats three meals a day, often with cake or biscuits. It looks familiar, barely any different from my world in my one-bedroom house and concrete office block.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun shook me up. I need shaking.

And I have a huge amount to learn. If you have any suggestion of stories that have touched you and educated you about this world that we don’t see, please share.

But with regard to Biafra and the characters of the story, I just let into my heart, there’s a small fact that particularly jars with me.

From Wikipedia, “Britain supplied amounts of heavy weapons and ammunition to the Nigerian side because of its desire to preserve the country it created. The Biafra side on the other hand found it difficult to purchase arms as the countries who supported it did not provide arms and ammunition. The heavy supply of weapons by Britain was the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the war.”

Estimates suggest 3 million people died from the fighting or the associated famine.


Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very different book. It’s not quite as tightly written as the Half of a Yellow Sun, but is definitely worth reading, especially, if like me your knowledge of recent history is sparse.

Again, I know the name Kabul from the newspapers, but in reality, I know nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I’m an independent and educated woman, so Mariam in the book is alien to me. Her learning consists of reciting some religious verses and cooking. Her life is held within a tiny, closed world whereas a woman her power is limited to a level that I simply cannot comprehend. The street outside changes around her: first by the Soviets, then by civil war, then the harsh rules of the Taliban, who in turn are pushed out by the Americans and the British declaring a war on terror.

Reading a story makes her street my street. Her family is my family. Her heartache is my heartache. But her humility isn’t my humility, it takes me a moment to accept that I can’t comprehend what it is she goes through, I don’t know I have that depth. I’ve never been pushed to my limits.


So, with this all churning in the back of my mind, my thoughts on remembrance day didn’t go along the lines of ‘I remember…’. They went along the lines of what do I need to plan to learn next. It’s a way of thinking that started in Poland, as I was walking through a stunning, beautiful city I became aware that where each modern building stood had once stood a street where men, women and children fought until death for an elusive freedom.

I went to the Warsaw Rising museum, and came out wondering why I knew nothing. I know nothing more than the British school curriculum. This doesn’t once mention the Warsaw Rising or the Biafran War or the many other catastrophes that I know nothing of. It says nothing of the soldiers who, as I was listening to the teacher regurgitate the textbook, were fighting and dying.

The misshapen perspective of a child.

books and reading

So yesterday’s Google UK doodle was for the author Diana Wynne-Jones. It was quite a lovely doodle and intrigued me, so I clicked on it.

She’s dead.

When I first saw she was dead I was worried she’d died tragically young. She was 76 when she died. She was born in 1934.

I’d expected her to be younger. I read Charmed Life when I must have been ten or so years old. It had a shiny new cover and I assumed it was a new book, written in the nineties for children like me.

So, on investigation I was surprised to find that the book was published in the seventies for children like the Father. It’s amazing how much we judge from a book’s cover, not only about the story, but about the author as well.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reading old books. I devoured the Chalet School books by Elinor Brent-Dyer and the first of these were published in the 1920’s.

The Chalet School books I read are all owned by the Short Aunty and live in the Grandmother and Grandfather’s house above the my bed (incidentally previously the Short Aunty’s bedroom and where on occasion the Little Mermaid now sleeps). The bookshelf is conveniently located just above the bed, and beneath it is a reading light.

When I stayed there during the holidays, I read the chalet school books obsessively. I think I’ve done more night time reading at the Grandparents house than anywhere else. It was the only place I was allowed to lay in the following morning, and the only place you could reach the bookshelf for the next in the series without getting out of bed.

I read the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Biggles books in the same manner.

Sometimes I fear that I was a faster reader then than I am now.

I don’t particularly recall reading any Diana Wynne-Jones books, but I vividly recall the cover.

The orphan boy in Charmed Life is named Eric, but called Cat. I can’t remember thinking this was strange when I was younger, but now, for a girl also known as Cat this is unnerving, it’s like finding out that Cat Stevens is a man.

Why was Cat Stevens called Cat?

He’s now named Yussaf (Joseph), after the well-loved technicolour dreamcoat owner.

Who incidentally, according to the Qur’an, married Potiphar’s wife after Potiphar’s death.

Which gives a completely different perspective doesn’t it? She used to be the evil woman, associated with women like Cruella de Ville and Snow White’s stepmother.

I was already worried about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s identification of the Egyptian King as a Ramesses, of use of the title Pharaoh and that in my study of Ancient Egypt I’ve not yet come across a prison. (And I’ve got a book on laws and punishments of Ancient Egypt).

Maybe it was a Hyksos custom? Which wouldn’t make it all that Egyptian at all. More Palestinian like.

[This was the leading train of thought that took me through Saturday morning. It’s amazing how much time you can lose to Wikipedia.]