Essential Books: The Case for Working with your Hands by Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford Author
Credit: Robert Adamo

Ever stared in mounting frustration as that stupid warning light on your motorcycle signals another walk of shame to the dealership’s fault code reader? Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good could be for you.

But before you get carried away, no, this book won’t help clear your confused ECU. You won’t learn much about motorcycles either. In fact, like all the best motorcycling books (in which I include Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) it’s not really about motorcycling at all.

Matthew Crawford Review
Credit: Alistair Richardson

Crawford owns Shockoe Moto in Richmond, Virgina which specialises in renovating older machinery, and the Reclaimed Vehicle Fabrication Laboratory, which does sheet steel fabrication.

He’s also a political philosopher with a PhD and before becoming a mechanic was a director of a think tank in Washington DC, which he stuck at for just five months before realising he wasn’t cut out for office work. On setting up the bike shop, Crawford reasons it’s better to be paid for doing something you love than being “compensated” for spending time doing something you find unsatisfying.

Sitting somewhere between self-help book and philosophical treatise on the nature of work, the gist of Crawford’s argument is that we’ve forgotten the value of manual competence and are increasingly reliant on stuff that can’t be fixed. You know, like modern motorcycles covered in “layers of electronic bullshit” as he (accurately I think) puts it.

Crawford believes manual work takes more mental competence than is commonly recognised. He sees a world where people are increasingly sent to university to become ‘knowledge workers’ at the expense of the maligned manual trades. He also sees much of this knowledge work being outsourced abroad, meaning those unfashionable manual trades could now be “one of the best pathways to a good living”. After all, if you need a plumber or a decent bike mechanic, who you gonna call – China?

Crawford draws on his experiences as a bike mechanic to develop his argument and many motorcyclists – from practical types who maintain older bikes to those who’d like to learn more after being shafted at their dealership’s service department – will instinctively recognise him as a fellow traveller.

What really shines through the pages is the feeling of worth that comes from the straightforward satisfactions of fixing things. Here’s the author describing the moment of handing over a newly repaired motorcycle to its happy owner:

I suddenly don’t feel tired, even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Through the portal of (the owner’s) helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!! blum-blum” of a crisp throttle gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

Matthew Crawford Author
Credit: Robert Adamo

Now that’s job satisfaction. But it’s not all easy smiles and cold beers. We’re also treated to the brutal experience of running a small independent motorcycle repair business. It’s a valuable insight into the back-of-the-mag small ads sector that’s still such a strength of the UK bike scene.

Describing a customer’s Honda V45 Magna as an example of how it can all go wrong, Crawford battles obsessively for hours with a rocker cover until eventually something snaps him out of his trance:

I smelled burning and discovered my pants were on fire. I was standing too close to the propane heater.

How long it takes him to finish the Honda is a thing of acute embarrassment, and it’s all he can do to cut the bill for his time from $2200 to $1500 to balance his customer’s expectations with the actual realities of working on an old bike (which in this case exhausts his “entire lexicon of motherfucker – based idioms”). Worth remembering the next time you pull out the plastic for services rendered and start to thinking “And I’m paying all this for what..?”

Essential reading then? If your idea of a good bike book is mostly pictorial and you’ve got no problem with the way your new bike’s been made to resist all attempts at owner maintenance then this won’t be your thing (remember, it’s not really a motorcycle book).

Others will enjoy Crawford’s dry humour and his essential belief in the universal merits of practical work. It’s that rare thing – an intellectual treatise that cuts through the modern world like degreaser and a call to arms – spanners, I suppose – to a generation of people who’ve been sold the lie that the way to a good life was to avoid understanding the world around them.

Matthew Crawford riding a bike

Don’t be fooled by the pictures. Crawford isn’t some poser interested in a fashionable vintage bike shop aesthetic to hang his ideas from (in fact as to the merits of vintage bikes he says rather unsympathetically that “they truly are a pain in the ass.”) So what is he then?

In fact he’s just a guy doing what makes him feel happy. Shouldn’t we all be doing a bit more of that?

“The Case for Working with your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for us and Fixing Things Feels Good” by Matthew Crawford, Viking, Penguin, 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-91874-4

Header Image Credit Jay Paul, Washington Post

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