Shop Class As Soulcraft

June 29, 2009

All Posts, Features, Reviews

I had a little, blonde, blue-eyed social worker once upon a time. She bought me with those eyes. She could freeze streams with those eyes. She could look a hole through a cloud and she kept those eyes open at all the right times. Sometimes if I shut my eyes I can still see hers. This was many long, hot summers ago. I usually think of her around the Fourth of July. I will not go into why.

She was a graduate of a college in the Ivy League and she was still going to school. And, I liked her a lot but I was never certain if we were actually friends or if I was only some research she was doing for her doctorate in psychology.

She educated me. I would be even stupider than I am today if I had not known her. And one book, I remember, she was certain I would like was called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I still don’t know why she thought that. I think, and I am just guessing, she figured that since I liked motorcycles and she liked Zen it was something I should read.

Things Change

Really, looking back, I have to admit that she must not have known me at all. I hardly remember that book. I remember I hated it. It offended me so one time when she wasn’t looking I gave it to Goodwill. I told her I lost it and then I really did lose the second copy she gave me.

And, then it was only about a week after she gave me the third copy that she told me that she had discovered that she was really a lesbian and she had been thinking for awhile about getting into a committed relationship with another lesbian. And so she was not going to have sex with men anymore. Not even me. But, of course I could keep the books.

So, being a sentimental fool, I kept that copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for another couple of years until I was living with another blonde. Call her Gloria. She had dull, brown eyes. I liked it when she closed her eyes.

Thank You Officer

And one night we began to disagree. I thought we were just having a conversation about life and the future and all the things that were wrong with me. Like usual. I thought we were just passing the time. I remember Gloria was ranting about how I should take her more seriously when I decided to walk away.

“Don’t you walk away from me!”

But I have been flunking obedience my whole life and after I walked away I did some of the calming, breathing exercises, that that lesbian social worker with the pretty eyes had taught me. I thought it was a stroke of luck that Gloria was on the phone when I got back. I gave Gloria “her space.”

And, I concentrated on “breathing through my center” until I heard her say something like, “Well he is standing right here in front of me right this minute in case you want to come and get the son of a bitch.”


“Thank you officer.”

Some Hard Earned Advice

“Baby?” Then almost immediately, there was a knock on our door. It is probably really obvious to everybody else in the world but I actually had to learn this the hard way so I will go ahead and share what I have learned with you. Never – I don’t care how nice or how cheap it is, never – rent a place on the same block with a donut shop. And, I am sure I do not have to explain to you what happened next.

“Hey! Hey! I don’t understand! What the hell is going on?! For what?!”

“Stop resisting!! Officer needs assistance! Stop resisting!!!!”

Which, in brief, is how I lost my third copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Obviously, there are some books I am just not destined to read. I guess there are some things I will never know. Also, this was also just about the first time I tried to give up on blondes.

Finally, Rebel Gets To The Point

I remember all of this partly because this is the hot, sweaty season and partly because a book called Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford was published about a month ago. And somebody, trying to be nice to me, gave me a copy because it has a motorcycle on the cover. And, then about three minutes later I heard the book described as the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for a “new generation.”

Well, as it turns out, the smartest thing about me is that I never learn from experience so I read it anyway. How else could I prove to myself how much I have “evolved?”

And, I am not sure if this is a book I would urge you to hurry out to buy. But if you do happen to be carrying on with a smart blonde, and one day this summer she buys you a copy of this book and you do happen to pick it up and start to read I think you might be surprised by how much you find you and this author agree. For sure, if you have a choice between Crawford’s book and Doc Cavazos’ book, or Billy Queen’s book or Jay Dobyns’ book, you should read this book.

He Is Really Smart

Matthew B. Crawford, his publisher claims, is a philosopher and a mechanic which is an unfortunate way to introduce somebody to me and probably to you. Because who isn’t a philosopher and a mechanic? That describes almost every man I have ever known.

Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. He served as a postdoctoral fellow on the Committee on Human Thought. And, no, I do not know what that is either. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and on the side he owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond named Shockoe Moto.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with Crawford for about the first hour I had the book in my hands. He obviously did not write this for us. He spends a lot of time talking about individual “agency” and I was never sure what he meant by that. He made me guess and I did not really care enough to guess. But he hooked me on page 67 which is when he brings up the subject of accessorizing motorcycles.

Smarter Than He First Seems

The advertising campaigns, Crawford notices, always try to make motorcycle owners think that bolting on a new air cleaner insert is the same as working on your bike. “This is a little like those model cars where the child’s role consists of putting the decals on,” Crawford writes. “Back in the 1950s, when the focal practice of baking was replaced by the advent of cake mix, Betty Crocker learned quickly that it was good business to make the mix not quite complete. The baker felt better about her cake if she was required to add an egg to the mix.” So today, Harley Davidson encourages us all to “customize.”

And so, I read on. I was hopeful because Crawford had already said at least one true thing which is more than most books offer. And, I was not disappointed.

Crawford takes on the big lie that everyone must have a college degree in something before they can do anything. And he makes a connection between the ambiguity of most white collar jobs and political correctness.

“…It is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job…then there is no secure basis for social relations. Maintaining consensus and preempting conflict become the focus of management and as a result everyone feels they have to walk on eggshells.”

Everybody Hates Shop Manuals

Near the end, Crawford even takes a few well aimed shots at service manuals. Crawford notices that manuals used to be written by mechanics.

“The writer of the 1960 Vincent Rider’s Handbook is anonymous,” he says, “yet when he writes that one who has never ridden such a high-performance motorcycle before is “very prone to be deluded” in estimating his speed, you feel the presence of an actual human being before whom you are willing to sit and learn…. The writers of modern manuals are neither mechanics nor engineers but rather technical writers. This is a profession that is institutionalized on the assumption that it has its own principles that can be mastered without the writer being immersed in any particular problem…. Technical writers know that but they don’t know how. They can be housed in an office building and their work organized in the most efficient way possible. That is, in a way that generates the greatest volume of manual writing per staff member.”

You already know all this, of course, but sometimes it is pleasant to find that some of the best brains actually agree with you. Sometimes the best books are the ones that tell you what you already know.

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2 Responses to “Shop Class As Soulcraft”

  1. troyez Says:

    I think the Vincent Rider’s Handbook was written by Raoul Duke, as a testament to his love of the Vincent Black Shadow.

  2. Rebel Says:

    Dear Troyez,

    Points for being droll. The thought of Gonzo Super Freak writing shop manuals has made me crack up about three times so far.


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