Labor Day is the most meaningful holiday of the year, because work is the most common human endeavor of all. Not everyone can talk credibly about sex, not everyone cares about sports, and many people don't even think much about food.
But get people talking in detail about their work—often you have to do some persuading that you're really interested—and you've transformed them into a passionate expert, on computer programing, train driving, deal-making, dancing, public relations or hairpiece-sewing.
Here are a few reflections on work, drawn from Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by deep-thinking motorcycle mechanic (or mechanically competent philosopher) Matthew B. Crawford.
The dichotomy between blue-collar and white-collar work is stupid.
"First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character," writes Crawford. "… trafficking in abstractions is not the same as thinking. White-collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation …"
And to illustrate briefly how intellectually involving blue-collar work can be, Crawford shares the recollection of a carriage-wheel maker, writing about the complexities involved in fabricating the wooden rim of a wheel, called a "felloe":
It was the wheelwright who had to make [the felloes look alike]. He it was who hewed out that resemblance from quite dissimilar blocks, for no two felloe-blocks were ever alike. Knots here, shakes there, rindgalls, waney edges (edges with more or less bark on them), thicknesses, thinnesses, were for ever affording new chances or forbidding previous solutions, whereby a fresh problem confronted the workman's ingenuity every few minutes. He had no band-saw … to drive, with ruthless unintelligence, through every resistance. The timber was far from being prey, a helpless victim, to a machine. Rather it would lend its own special virtues to the man who knew how to humor it.
Sounds to me like … writing, which I think of as one of the building trades.
It's good to have a trade.
And the very luckiest people in the world are those who have found a line of work that connects with everything else in their lives.
"… there are vocations that seem to offer a tighter connection between life and livelihood," Crawford writes. "Can such coherence be traced to the nature of the work itself? A doctor deals with bodies, a fireman with fires, a teacher with children. … these things are real enough, and the practices that serve them demand the kind of focused attention around which a life might take shape."
Both my parents were writers, I'm a writer. I deal with words, and much of my writing is for other writers.
"I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic," writes Crawford.
This effort connects me to others, in particular those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at. I wouldn't even know what those goods are if I didn't spend time with people who ride at a much higher level than I, and are therefore more discerning of what is a good motorcycle. So my work situates me in a particular community. The narrow mechanical things I concern myself with are inscribed within a larger circle of meaning; they are in the service of an activity that we recognize as part of a life well lived. This common recognition, which needn't be spoken, is the basis for a friendship that orients by concrete images of excellence.
So it's a happy Labor Day for me, and, I hope, a happy one for you too. If not, though, let's work on it. With our heads and with our hands.
Good post! I read Matthew Crawford’s original piece on working in the New Atlantic, and inflicted it on everyone I knew.
The book goes into more detail, which has its ups and downs. A big plus: his chapter describing the paradoxes of white-collar work, such as having a senior manager arbitrarily crap on a project, and the underlings having to rationalize the decision as “for the good of the organization.”
On the other hand, I wasn’t much impressed by his loving descriptions of the Johnson-fest that is a garage. Still, I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, for the reasons you describe.
Work takes up a ton of your time and energy, involves you emotionally, and may or may not give your life purpose. As you rightly point out, not many other activities do that.
(However, I noticed you skipped over the history of Labor Day, and the discussion that Americans are — still — overworked. Maybe next week, eh?)
David Murray says
John, thanks for the comment; I, too, found some of the Crawford book wanting, but most of it good.
As for the “let’s remember the real reason we celebrate Labor Day (and Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving and Christmas)” routine, you can get plenty of that from Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly.
On holidays, we at Writing Boots crack open beers; we don’t wag fingers. (That’s for the rest of the year.)