By on October 18, 2009

Do you remember?

Matthew Crawford is a practicing motorcycle mechanic out of Richmond,Virginia. He’s also an excellent writer who holds a philosophy degree from the prestigious University of Chicago. This unusual trifecta informs “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” Anyone who’s changed their oil or timed a distributor (remember them?) will appreciate the result.

Disregard the slightly woo-woo title. This is no Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle, which was a prissy piece of pretentious, barely readable hokum. [One reviewer damned my book The Gold-Plated Porsche with faint praise by asserting that it was better than Zen and the Art . . .”] Crawford’s book is a querulous examination of how and why we’ve given up our appreciation for the skills of the craftsperson—-or even the simple integrity of the committed do-it-yourselfer. In the process, we’ve become a culture of “change ‘er out, not worth troubleshootin’ it” techs.

Crawford traces the shift to our collective belief in the mantra “Time Is Money.” As a consequence, some of our ’57 Chevys and ’71 240Zs are worth more than a used F430—if you multiply hours times the going hourly day-job rate of some of the enthusiasts who lovingly restore and maintain them. There are other ramifications . . .

My daughter recently became a San Francisco homeowner. She asked me if she should buy an extended warranty on her new washer and dryer. After explaining the transaction’s super-scam aspect, I told her that the appliances are in fact incredibly simple machines. They can be stripped naked by the removal of a few sheetmetal screws, exposing a motor, belt and drum (or a motor, pump and hoses). She could rectify most problem using internet how-to sites plus the substantial toolkit I had assembled for her Manhattan-apartment days.

Crawford would approve. More to the point, he’d agree that the mini-education thus attained would stand my daughter in good stead. Both practically and philosophically.

Crawford charts the changes that I’ve seen first hand. Back in the 1950s, a mechanical education was a standard part of the average high school curriculum. As a child of the FDR era, I “took shop.” To this day, I remember the specific differences between crosscut and rip saws (Lesson One, I believe).

Sometime around 1990, American educators decided we’d moved beyond such skills, into the Information Age. High schools across the land dumped their industrial-quality lathes, drill presses, bandsaws and welding rigs onto the used market. (You can still find them on eBay.) And if a student were “retarded” enough to need shop class, he could always go to the local BOCES and become a butt-crack plumber.

The sea change created a vast sea of cubicle Dilberts—people doing things they neither care about nor understand. They follow simple patterns to accomplish their jobs. Crawford points out that the transition started long before shop class went the way of the hula hoop.

According to popular mythology, Henry Ford paid his workers twice as much as they’d otherwise have earned to make them affluent enough to buy Model Ts. In fact, when Ford developed the assembly line—each worker turning one bolt or fastening one bracket all day long—his former bicycle and carriage craftsmen quit in droves. Overpaying them was the only way Ford could secure enough workers willing to withstand the endless, mindless, repetitive, monotony. The creation of the middle class, and their accession to Model T ownership, was an unintended consequence.

Fast forward to 1969. If you’d taken your Porsche to the dealer with an infuriating cold-start problem, a mechanic who’d made a camshaft from a steel billet with a hand file to satisfy his apprenticeship would have quickly sorted it out. And now? Your Porsche is serviced by a “technician” who relies on the computerized OBD fault code that he (or she) finds on a list.

As Crawford correctly points out, the Porsche “specialist” is reasonably effective, but he lacks a deep understanding of the machine under his care. He’s like the Information Age student who has learned how to find a square root on their calculator—but doesn’t know what a square root signifies. A single botched keystroke can turn the root of 36 into 18 rather than six, and they won’t have the knowledge or experience to say, “No, that can’t be right.” In the same way, the Porsche tech may not tumble to the fact that if the sparkplugs are carbon black, maybe the engine is running rich—-even though the fault code “insists” on lean.

If you skip some of Crawford’s heady philosophy, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” reassures mechanically adept readers that working on your car imports treasure beyond measure. Still, as the old Zen says, the map is not territory.

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46 Comments on “Book Review: “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford...”

  • avatar

    Every generation seems to bemoan the loss of the craftsmanship of yore. Is this just the inevitable result of the division of labor, or is it the continual human yearning for “good old days” in the face of an uncertain present and future?


  • avatar

    No disrespect to a book I’ve yet to read, but sometimes this all sums up to be a big bunch of crybaby-toned Luddites wishing for simpler cars. On a site that can’t help but fall over the latest… technology.

    I’ll take today’s computerized cars and their advances in traction-control, all-wheel-drive, stabilization technologies in my icy snowy mountain climate ANY day. If you want to keep lamenting the loss of the days where you could change out a 4-wheel drive hub lock on that old International, keep at it. I won’t buy it.

    Lastly, any “reviewer” who tears into another book then admits that he wrote a book that was favorably compared to said book loses a LOT of credibility with me.

  • avatar

    Every generation seems to bemoan the loss of the craftsmanship of yore. Is this just the inevitable result of the division of labor, or is it the continual human yearning for “good old days” in the face of an uncertain present and future?

    I wouldn’t say that’s true. This is a relatively new phenomenon, a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. Assembly lines offer the antithesis of craftsmanship — they strive for consistency and uniformity by design, and endeavor to remove the craftsmanship from the process.

    For the last 60 years, we have been stigmatizing blue collar work, and now we’re starting to pay for it. We’ve become a throwaway culture with an endless capacity for wastefulness that is disconnected from just about everything in our lives, from the creation of the food we eat to understanding or maintaining the stuff that we own.

    In short, we all want to live like royalty. We forget that overly self-indulgent kings ended up with gout.

  • avatar

    Craftsmanship in the modern America can be summed up by looking at furniture. Pressed fiber furniture is functional and cost effective, yet won’t stand up to years of abuse. Hardwood furniture is costly and years longer then pressed fiber. So is one better then the other? It depends on the application.

    However, thrown in class sturggle and then craftsmanship can be expressed as a class divider as who can afford it and who can’t with no regard to whether it is necessary or not.

    I think it depends on who is bemoaning craftsmanship…

    Maybe some of it is “my dog’s better then your dog”. How many times have you heard “I can work on a car, I can score a bunch of touchdowns in Madden 10, I can get all these girls numbers, I can run faster then you…”???

  • avatar

    Chuck +1: From the Luddite hose weavers of 19th century Nottingham to Porsche mechanics who yearn for the days of simpler designs – the lamentation of progress and specialization is nothing new. We have built our society of perennially rising living standards on ever increasing efficiencies through automation and specialization.

    While a legitimate case could be made that this specialized (mostly office) work is not as satisfying as some creative manual labor, nobody can doubt the case for the effectiveness of progress.

    In the 1950s the average US worker had to work more than twice the number of time in order to buy a pound of steak than today – a gain in our living standard that all came though the progress of technology and specialization.

    Do I like messing around in the shed and repairing stuff? Sure I do, but I also don’t want a 50% cut in my standard of living to go back to someones else’s idea of manual labor utopia.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    I wont but the book, nobody saying its well written enough to count as literature.

    It raises a host of economics issues, none attractive for USA looking forward. While US economy in 1930 may not have been a sustainable economy, long term, 2009 is far less so.

    I’d like to go back to working with hands but I would starve especially as I get older.

    So I sit in sterile quiet office assessing accounting rules for other peoples money. Job #1 is to make loser boss look good to rest of enormous company, a true challenge. Job #2 is to constantly report on progress of work underway. Job #3 is to actually do any actual work and its pure memos and emails.

    I touch real stuff on weekends. Most of what i touch is in fact constructed of replaceable rather than fixable components.

    I repaired my wheelbarrow a few years back, for 2/3 price of new one and thats not counting time-$. I was intensely aware of the economic loss but it felt better. I like well maintanined well repaired old stuff.

    Lets hope that USA has something the rest of world wants in ten years, so they keep shipping oil and buying our debt.

  • avatar
    George B

    I believe there is value in getting one’s hands dirty with DIY repairs beyond a straight time vs. money tradeoff. My car refused to start late at night a few days ago. Turned the key and all dash lights went black. Rather than being scared, I deduced that the battery that started the car earlier in the day didn’t suddenly go bad and that I probably had battery cable problem instead. Fixed the problem in a minute and drove home. A friend had a similar car won’t start situation where she waited for half an hour for AAA and bought an overpriced battery for $165 that may not have been necessary because she wasn’t familiar with parts under the hood.

    In engineering there are significant advantages to being willing to work with your hands. First, pure computer terminal in a cubicle jobs are relatively easy to outsource to India or China. Actually testing physical prototypes in a lab is harder to outsource. Second, getting hands dirty in the lab gives an American engineer better access to information across educational and economic class lines. Technicians and assembly workers seem to talk more freely with engineers that can use tools.

  • avatar

    Even though shop class is not around so much anymore, we now have the internet which allows wanna be do-it-yourselfers to learn about anything they want to do. My girlfriend recently fixed both the washer and dryer’s problems, by going online and looking up the problems. $30 worth of parts and she had them both fixed (one was just a fuse, the other some broken gewgaw). I was quite impressed actually.

    I never had an auto shop class, but have been able to muddle through some car repairs that I never would’ve attempted 20 years ago. In that way it’s easier than ever for the do-it-yourselfer.

  • avatar

    I listened to an interview with Crawford about this book, and I was mesmerized – because he speaks directly to me. I’m a history/art history major, and a part time artist, who worked as a British bike mechanic. I still tinker with vehicles (not professionally, but I have enough projects in the family to keep me busy). I have an academic mind and a mechanic’s hand. It’s a rare combination, and it’s refreshing (not to mention exceedingly rare) when you encounter someone else who has a great intellect to go along with their wrench-twirling skills. Academia and mechanicals aren’t mutually exclusive. There is an art to the craft of fixing shit, and it requires more thought than most people would think.

    And yes, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is philosophic craptrap (sic) disguised as popular literature. It’s mind numbing and depressing. At least Robert Persig is suitably self-deprecating and orphans the project from the git-go in his introduction to the recent editions.

  • avatar

    I have worked with (and for) so many people who have no idea how anything is fixed or how it works. Instead they proudly proclaim they don’t do that stuff themselves and pay others to do it. Well, anyone can pay someone to fix a car or change oil, but having to pay someone versus choosing to is a different matter.

    Imagine being in a situation where you can’t pay someone, or if you are all alone. Helplessness sucks.

    There were comments posted here last week from an auto mechanic implying that we can’t fix our cars because we don’t have the information, the knowledge or a suitable lift (!) for our cars. I disagree, and know a few auto mechanics that are not particularly skilled or smart. They have a lot of tools but do the same things we can to determine why your Honda idles funny or a Ford stalls occasionally.

    Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maint. was a tome to one mans ego and chronicled his insanity. The best thing about the book is the notion of doing a good job first and foremost.

  • avatar

    Putting aside the luddite argument for a moment, I think that there is a lot to be said for getting down and dirty, tearing things apart and putting them back together.

    One, it’s the idea of self-sufficiency. Granted, it’s on a fairly limited scale, but it’s more the act of learning something new or a new puzzle that I find enjoyable and practicable.

    It’s also a way to save money when I need to save a few bucks, from an oil change to replacing the windows in my kitchen.

    Two, it’s the act of learning something new. It’s good to keep the brain doing different things. You’re subtly teaching yourself a new process, technique or developing a better understanding when you dive in and try to do something with your hands.

    As for me, I’m a technology guy, but I have a deep seated appreciation for well made things because they seem more substantial, with more effort put into them and more thought (broad generalization, I know).

    Right now I’m in the process of replacing my kitchen windows. Instead of paying an installer $1500 bucks for the labor to do it, a few hours of research combined with several years’ worth of accumulated experience has let me pocket those savings and do the job myself. Likewise, instead of just chucking the old wooden sashes in other parts of my house, I’m slowly removing them, stripping them down, repairing the glass and wood, repainting and re-staining them to be good as new. Would I prefer to replace them with new windows for better efficiency? Sure would – but the cost to replace these wooden windows with comparable modern ones would be insanely expensive. So, I only replace the ones which cannot be salvaged.

    I like being in a position where I can do these things without having to pay someone to do them for me. Call me crazy, but I like that self-sufficent feeling.

    I also agree with the premise that our society has subtly denigrated the blue-collar worker. To this day, several of the men I admire the most for their genuine ingenuity, creativity in solving problems and general resourcefulness would be classed ‘blue collar, common laborers’.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern


    Even though shop class is not around so much anymore, we now have the internet which allows wanna be do-it-yourselfers to learn about anything they want to do.

    Learn about it, theoretically: Yes.

    Learn how to do it, practically: No.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Apart from the apparent typo in the next to last sentence (I assume you intended to say “imparts”), the review is an excellent one, though maybe a little too hard on Pirsig. (After all, “Motorcycle” was written ages ago.) Also, in suggesting skipping over what you term “heady philosophy”, I think you sell your reader short. Crawford has a lot to say in this realm as well, and exposure to more theoretical musings is no less important to developing a keen intelligence as is the understanding of things mechanical.

  • avatar

    Nothing new — this has been going on for over 5,000 years.

  • avatar

    One problem is that many things are not made to be repaired. You can spend hundreds of dollars on consumer electronics and not be able to get replacement circuit boards. A capable electronics repair person might be able to fix the boards, but everything these days use surface mount components, which are a PITA to replace. Also, the move to digital means that it isn’t a switch, some wire and a motor anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely true. One of my first jobs was working in a TV/Electronics repair shop. This during the transition from mostly American-manufactured products to those made in Japan. When a Zenith broke, it was a joy to work on. There were excellent repair manuals, no *%&$#^ hidden screws and *every* part was available. When a Sony broke it was a descent into technician hell. The circuit board traces couldn’t withstand desoldering, the circuits themselves could be mind-boggingly complex, the “repair manuals” would have been more understandable in their original Kanji characters and they used weird, exotic, expensive, fragile components. After all, why use a standard horizontal output transistor (like a 2N3055 at a replacement cost of $3) when you can use a proprietary silicon-controlled gate that cost seven times as much? It’s a Sony! 1970s Trinitrons had lousy picture tubes that just didn’t last (and couldn’t be rejuvenated) compared to the Rowlands ones used in Zeniths. It took years before I could bring myself to buy a Sony TV.

      In defense of the cubicle job, I must say that it depends. I write code for a living. To be more specific I describe what I do as “information plumbing”. It can be challenging as hell and to do it well requires considerable skill, such that I’m still challenged by it even after almost 30 years. Philosopically, I see little difference between crafting an elegant algorithm or database query and figuring out hour to make that tricky cut on my table saw.

  • avatar

    I’m happy to say that I know the gentleman in question; and if you think his writing is good, you should see the quality of his work on a vintage motorcycle.

    His shop webpage is: The section on “perverse or interesting projects” is fascinating.

  • avatar

    Tenmiler: No disrespect to a book I’ve yet to read, but sometimes this all sums up to be a big bunch of crybaby-toned Luddites wishing for simpler cars. On a site that can’t help but fall over the latest… technology.

    I’ll stick up for Wilkinson and note that he was the first to open my eyes to the fact that we will not be driving our cars in the next century…

  • avatar

    @ Daniel J. Stern: did you read the rest of my comment? I’ve done a lot of basic repairs to my car without any prior experience. I never tried to fix anything on a car until 10 years ago and completed all those projects successfully without any help in person, though I did get help on forums.

    Not only that, but I make a living as a software and web developer and learned everything about that from google as well. I haven’t taken a computer programming course since high school and majored in illustration in college. When I need to do something I just go on google and look up how to do it. It’s really all there for you if you don’t hold yourself back.

  • avatar

    In a similar vein, if you haven’t taken the 20 minutes to listen to Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe – you can see the video here:

    It’s a great rumination on the devaluation of dirty fingernails work, and Rowe is both intelligent and entertaining in his presentation.

  • avatar

    Fast forward to 1969. If you’d taken your Porsche to the dealer with an infuriating cold-start problem, a mechanic who’d made a camshaft from a steel billet with a hand file to satisfy his apprenticeship would have quickly sorted it out.

    Stephan, can you elaborate on this so that I can understand why? Thanks!

  • avatar

    Every generation seems to bemoan the loss of the craftsmanship of yore. Is this just the inevitable result of the division of labor, or is it the continual human yearning for “good old days” in the face of an uncertain present and future?

    To me, mechanical things, preferably made of metal, have soul. Electronic things, especially when made of plastic, don’t. But I can’t help thinking that in this, I’m a creature of my era. (I was born during Eisenhower, and 4 when Sputnik was launched.)

    While never particularly good at doing auto mechanics (in contrast to understanding the basics) I did take auto shop at Gunn High School in 12th grade (which was written up in c/d decades later), and I did my own tune-ups and a few other things until I bought the ’93 Saturn, and there weren’t any tune-ups to do anymore. I got a lot of satsifactoin out of that work, and I had mixed feelings when I bought the Saturn, knowing that was the end of gapping the points, etc.

  • avatar

    Thanks Stephan for a very nice review. I want to read it.

  • avatar

    We should all have an inner Tim the Toolman left in our bag of tricks. There is nothing particular masculine about no will to take on handyman challenges simply because it doesn’t fit into our new hi-tech gelding world of non-“luddites”.What guy with even a hint of testosterone would buy into that bullshit.Even if you screw up at least you tried instead of developing some pseudo-intellectual debate about why you shouldn’t try.

  • avatar

    As an IT director who knows what end of a screwdriver to hold, I understand the importance of mastering mechanical and computer systems.

    Yes, a spark plug may tell you lots about the stoichiometric status of the cylinders, but it won’t tell you why.

    A computer measures the airflow into the engine and then calculates how much fuel to squirt into the engine. A technician familiar with the quirks of software might find that the sensors and injectors are doing their jobs, but the computer is screwing up the math – and a software bug might be the culprit.

    A technician not familiar with the quirks of software controlled devices might spend hours replacing sensors, checking fuel pressures, changing fuel filters and regulators, all the while never thinking that the engine management computer might be the cause.

    Almost everything that was mechanical in the past is now computer controlled. Mechanical proficiency is still important, but knowledge of software and computer systems is as important today as knowledge of a lathe or welder was yesterday.


  • avatar

    I enjoy working on my vehicles, and I don’t trust anyone else with them so I’d be willing to pay more to work on my vehicles – and everything else I own -myself. But it really does save money too. My buddy and I were changing a timing belt, and ran into an unexpectedly tight crankshaft bolt. I borrowed my father’s impact wrench, and he said, “Why the hell are a couple of engineers wasting their time on this. Why don’t you pay someone to do it.” I did a few seconds of calculations in my head and replied, “We have 15 hours to do this job to break even on what our time is worth, after taxes.” He couldn’t argue with that.

  • avatar

    A book that looks like it is worth a read.

    It’s easy to get bogged down in the particulars of technology and tools (“Old stuff is crap!“… “New stuff sucks!”…) and forget that what’s important is critical thinking. Especially for those of us who actually make things work, either by choice or necessity.

    I love basic technology and think the simplest solution should be used whenever possible, and I opt whenever I can for technology that I can repair myself. On the other hand, I like reliability, breathing clean air and getting good gas mileage, and think that modern fuel injection is the obvious best choice compared to carburetors… sure, they’re harder and more expensive to work on, but I find that the trade off is worth it.

    Ultimately, I don’t care if I use a wrench, a multimeter, a code scanner or all three, as long as I can do my repairs.

    If I have any problem with what I’ve seen of modern technology, it is when critical thinking is replaced with total dependence on canned diagnostic tools. This is the difference between one shop telling you that your rough running engine needs a new ECU (for a cool grand or two) and another telling you “hey, one of your spark plug wires is loose”.

    Technology and tools are only as good as the people using them. If someone doesn’t understand the basics (i.e. fuel/compression/ignition), can’t think independently and can’t adapt or improvise, all the data in the world won’t do them any good… it’s like showing a card trick to a dog.

    How do you gain such skill? By regularly using your wits and your hands to outsmart your troubles. That’s where the satisfaction lies. And the best way to hone your wits is by getting in there and getting your hands dirty, observing, experimenting, thinking. Anything that prevents you from doing so is where the evil lies, in my humble opinion.

  • avatar

    The values praised here are just as much if not more about having a high degree of autonomy in your choice of work, being able to select the problems you wish to solve (or pay others to solve), the right to exercise some imagination in devising solutions, the opportunity to grow by developing manual and mental skills, and to generally enjoy work and understand the purpose of your job.

    Many cubicle jobs lack these basic qualities, but so do most jobs where people work with their hands. Most of them are not able to work on vintage motorcycles. It’s great that some can, but society is not set up to employ a lot of people in those sort of occupations.

  • avatar

    I agree with Jeff Waingrow – you’re too hard on Pirsig. It’s actually a great book, but you have to have a little philosophical inclination to begin with. I’ve always thought that at least half the people who bought “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (please correct the title in your article) expected tune-up data for their Harley and were thus very disappointed.

    Your comments on washers don’t ring true to me. Today they have computers -more than one- and you’d need to know how to diagnose them and God only knows what equipment you need for that. I’ve fixed old washers that we’ve owned, but I couldn’t fix our modern front loader. One computer wasn’t talking to the other. It’s not just sheet metal screws and hose clamps these days. Of course if you want to say I should learn more about computers, well, maybe so. My solution next time will be to not fix the Frigidaire and instead buy a $200 Roper with no electronics. But how much longer will there be such an option?

    I’ve let people know that I’d like Crawford’s book for X-mass. I look forward to reading it.

    A lot of schools have courses called “technology”. Kids are building crude robots and working with electronic gee gaws. It’s not the “hand me the BIG hammer” kind of technology we old guys learned, but it’s working with the sort of things that these kids will be living with. Maybe if they buy a Frigidaire washer they’ll be able to repair it.

  • avatar

    Being the “modern” suburbanite and able to hire your chores out or simply replace what breaks makes a person the perfect consumer doesn’t it?

    Buy, buy, buy…

    The constant shopping to “keep up” with technology simply makes a person a slave to fashions and what’s cool.

    What happens if a person’s income stream dries up or something really serious happened ($8 per gallon fuel) and they couldn’t just go buy “a new one”?

    I complimented a friend on his place and by extension his stuff. His reply was quietly “it takes everything we make”. He isn’t capable of even a changing his oil in his two very expensive V-8 powered 4-wheel drives. It wouldn’t take much to upset his apple cart. Sure I’d help if he called for help. I certainly believe in helping each other “raise a barn”.

    I’d rather buy something built with quality and enduring style that I can repair later if necessary. Hopefully I would be able to get parts in a decade or two of course.

    To me the loss of the ability of the modern man (and sometimes rarely a woman) to fix and even improve their things has led to a rise in consumption that we may find unsustainable in the near future.

    Perhaps sometimes the “replace a component and throw the old away” is a function of how the larger item is assembled either automatically or semi-automatically. I used to work for a company which custom designed and manufactured these types of systems. Sometimes the item was designed before we created a line to assemble it, sometimes it wasn’t. Whatever the case the goal was to produce a maximum number of assemblies per shift with very little if any thought about reworking the assembled parts at any time beyond the loading dock.

    I find the lack of skills people have now, the lack of desire of the modern consumer to know much about how to fix anything, and implied obsolescence of everything we’ve owned for more than a year to be a sad situation.

    We are teaching our boys to fix everything. I’m slowly restoring a couple aircooled VWs and as each son is able to understand and help – I help them understand why things work a certain way and and the in’s and out’s of using a handtool, powertool and measuring tool.

    We want our boys (and girls if we had one) to be able to take care of themselves beyond just earning a paycheck from shuffling papers in a cubicle.

    I think America might be going down a very dark path in our aspiration to be maintenance free suburbanites (i.e. lazy, TV watching retiree-wannabes at 35 yrs old).

  • avatar

    I blame the “disposable everything” culture that low cost manufacturing has enabled.

    There are two parts to this unsustainable trend;

    1. Poorly made goods to start with,

    2. Manufacturer “economics” that via distortion ensure buy-again is less expensive than repair.

    I blame the Chinese. Their industry is geared to build it twice (three times?) rather than well and once.

    There is room for quality, but buyers must embrace it and be prepared to pay a little more.

    The other thing is time; I have a 51% finished Massey Ferguson-35 1958 diesel tractor that won’t be going anywhere for another 10 years at this rate.

    Oh, I intend to buy the book.

  • avatar

    This is no Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle, which was a prissy piece of pretentious, barely readable hokum.

    If you’re going to disparage a work that you’re obviously ill-equipped to critique, you could at least refer to it by its proper title. It’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

    ZATAOMM has sold over 4 million copies in twenty-seven languages and has been hailed as the most widely read philosophy book ever published. Not bad for “barely readable hokum”.

  • avatar

    The insistence on “everyone getting a college degree” is where much of this started.

  • avatar

    There have been a few comments denigrating the ability of women with tools. The alumni director of my (other) high school–a woman–restored a ’67 VW when she was in high school. A late friend of my late parents’, wife of a harvard professor of note, restored a car when she was in high school. Both of them without male help. My sister has more aptitude for working with her hands than I do. And, in the very early ’90s, I was looking for a used Integra (whch I never bought). I called one woman. Why was she selling it, I asked. She couldn’t do much work on it, she said. She was getting a ’63 Chevy truck so that she could have something she coudl work on.

  • avatar

    In regards to oil changes, it’s a difficult choice for some–you spend $5 on a filter and $15 (Canadian) on oil at your local Carquest, and change it yourself on your back in the driveway… Or you pay a shop $3 more to do it while you sit in air conditioned comfort.

    I do all my own work not only to save money, but because I trust myself to do it, and have no one to blame but myself when it goes wrong later.

    But I agree, even technicians are becoming point-and-click dummies who throw parts at cars. I see it because I sell the parts–part after part after part to solve the problem rather than diagnosing it properly in the first place.

    I’m only 28, so I guess I fall into the “generation” the book speaks of. But I pride myself on being able to rebuild an old Q-Jet, or tune an engine based on spark plug readings. I learned it in school (our shop program was the biggest in the province until it was cut down drastically after I graduated), I learned it from my dad and grandpa, and from my race team’s crew chief. To this day I can still diagnose things quicker and cheaper than anyone else I know, and try my best to help buddies NOT blow money on loads of parts.

    Amazing how simple logic in troubleshooting works, and how hard it seems for some people. Engine no start? Is it getting fuel and spark? No fuel? Is the fuel pump pressurizing? If no, check fuel pump fuse/relay/wiring, then pump… If yes, check for plugged filter, check for injectors not firing… If carbureted, check that fuel is getting to the bowl… etc etc etc…

    It’s all just basic flowcharts. Amazing how much people rely on trouble codes these days. Just because you have “o2 sensor left bank” codes does not mean the o2 sensor is bad!!!

  • avatar

    Dynamic88: A lot of schools have courses called “technology”. Kids are building crude robots and working with electronic gee gaws. It’s not the “hand me the BIG hammer” kind of technology we old guys learned, but it’s working with the sort of things that these kids will be living with. Maybe if they buy a Frigidaire washer they’ll be able to repair it.

    One major thing that makes consumer electronics difficult to repair, for those that are so inclined, is not having access to a set of schematics for the circuit board. When most digital electronics were based around 7400-series ICs and such, I could look-up the pinout of each chip in a databook, probe the circuit with my oscilloscope, and get a good idea what was going on. Not so easy to do today. If the power supply and fuses all test good and you can’t find a problem with a circuit board through a visual inspection, chances are good that you’ll be replacing the circuit board.

    That’s if you can find someone to sell you the board. I tried to buy an electronic part for my super-high-efficiency furnace when it failed. I was told that it could only be sold to licensed gas fitters! Quite a racket. So I desoldered the board from the motor assembly and repaired it myself, saving $1000.

  • avatar

    “Fast forward to 1969. If you’d taken your Porsche to the dealer with an infuriating cold-start problem, a mechanic who’d made a camshaft from a steel billet with a hand file to satisfy his apprenticeship would have quickly sorted it out. And now? Your Porsche is serviced by a “technician” who relies on the computerized OBD fault code that he (or she) finds on a list.”

    I wouldn’t let anyone who’d made a camshaft from a steel-billet with a hand file anywhere near my lawnmower, let alone my Porsche.

  • avatar
    David G

    I’ve noticed several comments dismiss Crawford’s book out of hand, and I encourage you not to do so.

    Shop Class as Soulcraft is sitting on my desk at this moment, and it’s a fascinating read. I enjoyed Stephan Wilkinson’s The Gold-Plated Porsche, but Shop Class is a book of an entirely different nature. I don’t believe Wilkinson’s review relates the philosophical and intellectual depth of Shop Class.

    The book touches on some themes you may have seen before, but to borrow from Zen and the Art it explores things more deeply than our usual shallow and broad view. Crawford quit his job at a think tank to repair motorcycles, and this book explores why he finds the latter more satisfying and how our society and educational institutions have come to devalue manual labor. Along the way he touches on a lot more.

    Simply put, Crawford’s book will give you a great deal to think about. I had to read it slowly to be fair to its richness in philosophical and intellectual substance. And I’ll confess I had to keep a dictionary handy. After finding myself thinking about it a couple of weeks after finishing the book, I decided to read it again. To me, it was that thought-provoking.

  • avatar

    The constant shopping to “keep up” with technology simply makes a person a slave to fashions and what’s cool.

    I’m in the process of shopping for a flat screen TV. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who own several of these and have already replaced some of them due to outdated technology.

    Didn’t these things start coming down in price 5 years ago?

    I’m 38 and even I’m amazed at the number of people who blow a lot of money on TV’s to replace them just 5 years later. To me, that’s nuts.

  • avatar

    I can honestly say that the physically hardest, most complicated tasks that pay less are far more mentally rewarding than a better paid job punching a load of words into an email and clicking ‘send’.
    Plus there’s nothing quite like botching a heap of junk car back together on a shoestring budget and then selling it to some poor sap who knows nothing about cars.

  • avatar

    I was on the fence about getting this book, but think I will add it to the holiday list. The excerpts I’ve read have been intriguing.

    After hearing so much about it over the years, this past summer I finally tried to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Perhaps in it’s time it was relevant, but to me it is a wandering, long-winded and ultimately unsatisfying diversion that I’m sorry I wasted my time and money on. If anyone wants a copy, I’ll cheerfully give you mine. Far better to read John Jerome’s Truck, a pretty realistic and entertaining look at repairing old crap that many of us do for fun.

  • avatar

    jkross22 – and the people buying them… By the way we’re about the same age.

    I’ve got a 19 year old college student that works for me from time to time and he constantly goes on about the 52 inch TV he wants to buy, the $2200 computer he wants to buy and how his parents won’t pay his cellphone texting subscription. And then there is the part where he has to catch a ride with his girlfriend b/c he can’t afford insurance on his 15 year old Mazda p/u.

    HUH? Priorities…

    Maybe we as a nation have some sort of attention deficient disorder???

    I find that I’m pretty satisfied to watch a movie on paid for and aging technology. LOL. Sure I’ll buy a big TV eventually. Looked at them while waiting for the family the other night at the store. Nice. Not a priority at my house yet. Still going to have to sit down and learn the differences between the technologies. LOL.

    Am much more satisfied going out in the garage and working on one of my aircooled VWs or putting the carbs back together for my old aircooled Honda motorcycle.

    Dug out my copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” last night. Might give it some reading this weekend. Still working my way through “2 cents per mile” by Nevres Cefo.

  • avatar

    Every generation has it own DIY’s: car repairing for the baby boomers, code cracking and game modding for younger kids, and, for earlier generations, grow your own food.
    The author simply couldn’t see beyond his own limitations and regard other forms of activities being as productive and as fun as fixing old cars.

  • avatar

    Come on people, the individual as self sufficient ended when the first cave people joined together to grow their own food and hunt together.
    That’s not to say we can’t appreciate good design and quality workmanship but lets include the paper pusher in the cubicle too.  “Different strokes for different folks,” brought us to where we are today and will sustain into the future.

  • avatar

    Spent the past several months taking car of a machine shop at a university after the original machinist retired. Have come to believe that kids don’t know didly about shop skills b/c too many have zero opportunity to learn them. Talking to these kids it has become clear to me that a number of them came from houses where there were no tools or skills to use tools. Perhaps feeling successful for the average suburbanite parent is the ability to hire out many of life’s chores???
    Many of these kids are eager to learn how to weld or machine given the chance a little guidance. Yes, there are still kids out there whose priorities revolve around gadgets and TV who don’t know anything and don’t want to know anything except how to kill the monster in their favorite video game.

  • avatar

    Great book, I’m just finishing it up now. An interesting and thought proviking read.
    Be warned, it’s written with an advanced vocabulary, which I enjoyed because it’s been a while since I had such a challenging book. Any word I had to look up I wrote the definition in the back, I think dichotomy was the first entry.
    Anyway this book sheds some light on how our society works, and also gave me some insight on why I do things the way I do (Yes I fix everything myself and have a V4 Honda).
    Because Crawford draws so heavily on his own unsatisfactory experiences in the cubicle world he misses part of the picture. Just as the skilled trades offer learning opportunites and challenges beyond the assembly line so too is there interesting, varied and creative work to be had behind a desk. Engineering, industrial design, programming, animation and other graphic arts offer a similar experience at desk or cubicle.

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