Review: The Case for Working with Your Hands –
or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good, by Matthew Crawford
There is a detectable trend these days for the titles of books to be rather long. No more the snappy, catchy title, easily typed into a search engine or quoted in a bookshop or library – rather something which gives the game away before you’ve even looked into the work. Matthew Crawford’s book represents the trend. Its long title tells you what it’s all about in two, rather lengthy phrases.
The hands-on approach
At the same time, the book is not quite as simple as its title might imply. A case is made for manual work but not any such work. Mind-dulling, repetitive, assembly-line work is not being recommended, and is duly criticised. It’s the second part of the title which gives a clue as to what type of manual work Crawford is defending. As the words “fixing things” imply, what he has in mind are the manual trades such as plumbing, carpentry, electrical wiring, bricklaying and repair work of all sorts – in his case in particular, fixing motorcycles.
The value of work
Furthermore, this isn’t a simple tract in praise of the health benefits of getting out from behind a desk and doing something physical. In large measure it is also a work of philosophy, as the sub-title of the US edition indicates – An Inquiry into the Value of Work.
Aristotle, Socrates, Descartes, Hobbes, Marx and Heidegger make appearances in the text, alongside kick-starters, pistons, cams, rockers and clutch rods. One of Crawford’s central themes is that blue-collar work is not necessarily, as is often believed, devoid of thinking. In fact he argues the case, using the example of his own motorcycle repair activity, that much physical work actually demands a great deal of mental activity as human and machine interact, not virtually on a computer screen but in “real time” in an interactive way.
Thinking outside the cubicle
In parallel, and in some ways more interestingly, Crawford takes a few well-aimed pot-shots at the supposed superiority of white-collar work. As he argues, again from his own experience, office work or mental labour can often be actually devoid of thinking, certainly creative thinking.
All in all, this is a very polemical work, and that is something which appears quite deliberate. An argument is being addressed to both educators and those being educated questioning the common assumption that attending university and gaining paper qualifications with the aim of getting a white-collar job sitting at a desk is the best way to achieve human fulfilment – not to mention that many manual workers can earn higher earnings than office or even management employees.
Mind vs. muscle
Crawford acknowledges and describes the socio-economic background to the division between mental and manual labour, and challenges some of the assumptions of modern economies with their drive to reduce all work, of whatever sort, to particularised, statistically accountable, meaningless activity, such that in the end “real life” and true fulfilment are often seen as being attainable only away from work.
This book is certainly thought-provoking, and you don’t have to be interested in or knowledgeable about motorbikes to understand the author’s reflections about the questionable, yet almost universally accepted division between mental and manual labour.
Buy the book
The Case for Working with Your Hands – or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good
By Matthew Crawford
246 pages, paperback
Penguin UK, 2011, GBP 8.99