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Northwest explorations; in praise of the 'useful arts'

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Shop Class as Soulcraft
An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Matthew B. Crawford
The Penguin Press: 246 pp., $25.95

Matthew B. Crawford studied physics as an undergraduate and got a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. To support his philosophy habit, he worked as an electrician, and car and motorcycle repairman. Doctorate in hand, he worked as an executive at a Washington think tank and was soon overwhelmed by a sense of uselessness. "The meta-work of trafficking in the surplus skimmed from other people's work" became less appealing to him than productive labor, the good feelings and self-reliance that came from knowing how to make and fix things.

Crawford is careful not to romanticize manual labor. "I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in," he writes. "I also have little interest in wistful notions of a 'simpler' life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being 'working class.' " In fact, Crawford's writing is remarkably clear and close to the bone. When times are hard, the economy precarious, people turn not only to frugality but to work that gives them a greater sense of control over their own destinies, "the ability to take care of your own stuff." Having a skill seems far more practical than the meta-work encouraged in most universities: "The question of what a good job looks like -- of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored -- is more open now than it has been for a long time."

Crawford challenges many myths: the assumption that blue-collar work is "mindless," while white-collar work is "recognizably mental in character"; the idea that process is "more important than product"; and so many others. Popular culture, he points out, is full of references ("The Office," "Dilbert") to the absurdity of white-collar work. "Absurdity is good for comedy," he writes, "but bad as a way of life." The new economy celebrates "potential rather than achievement."

Having a trade, what Crawford calls "the useful arts," gives the doer an intimate sense of the materials he works with, an understanding of how things actually work and a "library of sounds and smells and feels." It is, in short, good for the brain. Crawford, who owns a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto in Richmond, Va., includes many stories from his own life. Recent press coverage has sent word-of-mouth buzz on "Shop Class" through the roof, but it really is a book whose time, in our culture, has come.

The Collector
David Douglas and the Natural
History of the Northwest
Jack Nisbet
Sasquatch Books: 272 pp., $23.95

We need all the help we can get imagining this country when it stretched out, untouched by industry. With every passing year, the species mentioned by explorers and naturalists, the smells and sounds and the sheer profusion of wildlife become more dreamlike. David Douglas grew up in Scotland, the son of a stonemason, and studied botany in Glasgow with the great naturalist and fern expert William Jackson Hooker. In 1823, at the age of 24, he sailed with Hooker to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent 10 years collecting and keeping a journal and naming countless species (most notably the Douglas fir). He explored areas skirted by Lewis and Clark and was one of the first naturalists to collect species. What's left at book's end is the sense of plenty, of endless variety and beauty that accompanied these vistas.

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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