Building New Books and the Challenge of Repairing Old Ones

I came upon the following bothersome quote from Matthew Crawford. (Despite thoroughly enjoying the book, no author is perfect.)

“Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery… Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” — Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

The process of fixing something has multiple meanings. You can use fixer on a photograph, nailing the image, you can fix a pastel drawing with a spray or mouth atomizer [I love that word]  and you can fix something to a wall. I have not consulted my dictionary for I don’t wish to oversell the story, yet I am interested to know how many other usages there are. The one that concerns me here is the idea of “fixing something.”

At issue is the core problem that FIXING and MAKING are not co-equal. They are each entirely different matters. The same core problem exists when a maker of something can only equate successful making with successful selling of what they made. Making and selling also reside in different camps.

Fixers of things in my world are plumbers, electricians, my brother-in-law mechanic and mostly book conservators, library menders and other binders that orbit low and high. I must state for the record that my love of materials AND the fact that conservators also know their materials has been a constant source of inspiration and information and has set me up to glean a vast amount of constellated dots. My picture is larger because of an uncountable number of people.

Yet I make books from the ground up. I don’t make all of the raw materials and so rely on the industry to provide me with board, paper, leather and many other sundries. Kinda kinks up the notion of ‘’handmade’’ when we buy so much to work with. I find the quest for materials, both industrial standard and homemade, to be extremely satisfying.

Crawford suggests ‘’Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” This sentence appears to suggest that if you fix a car or a book, you are hubris free but making something from the ground up somehow promotes narcissism. My take on this sentence is that it contributes nothing to the conversation about making or fixing except to perhaps demean making and elevate fixing.

I love that Crawford fixes motorcycles. I also want him to make one. The learning curve is huge with a ton of preparatory tasks ahead of tooling that first piece of steel or casting any parts. There is probably a seven-year apprenticeship before anyone can really start.

Much is the same with the arts of the book. Paper making, printing and scribal work, bookbinding — each is a massive potential skill set. A minimal working knowledge is necessary before you put on your trunks and dive in if you want to make a book of value and longevity.

Cars and bodies can be mended. But books now are cheaper than an hour in the shop and so are discarded. It’s useful to remember that contemporary books are artifact echoes of a long gone structure. When people talk about the book being dead, that metaphor is not fully true for we still have this ghost form of the trade book to name only one. What we don’t have, commonly, are great handmade books because the culture moved on from this requirement. (Really fine, superb books DO exist and this gladdens my heart.) 

Still, this quality of “no quality” is one reason we see the travesty called ‘’the book arts’’ where books are destroyed in making an object that is hoped to be art.

For me, the meanest book still deserves respect and does not deserve being turned into something it is not. Designing books is very demanding work. I have a designer-girl wife and several colleagues that have designed books and their design efforts should never be maligned.

Where Crawford’s quote is most concerning is that it includes a contempt of mastery. 

Perhaps Crawford is right within his experience of motorcycles. He also suggests this based on what a doctor does — ignoring that a doctor can’t “make a human.”

Yet it’s irresponsible to suggest there’s “conceit of mastery” for those who create from scratch. Anyone who can be described as a “master” when it comes to creation understands that mastery is a journey — not a destination. There is always more to learn. They also have lived a life where creation is a humbling experience. Anyone who truly masters an area holds tremendous respect for the potential to fail.

My work with books is particularly challenging and my approach to making things quickly cures one of conceit. Derailment daily attends within the challenge of turning a stack of weak cellular materials — paper, linen thread, book boards, and, perhaps, leather – into an artifact with strength that will survive for maybe a century or more.

Crawford suggests that fixing is more humbling because one never knows the complete process. This is misinformed. No one becomes any sort of art or book or paper conservator without undergoing the whole curve and knowing so much about how things are done that they do no damage. Of course a doctor cannot know it all or make a human from scratch. And most auto guys never build a car.  [I think given time and resources my brother-in-law could build a car.]

A lot of guys in the fixing biz like shoemakers and gunsmiths and plumbers do both repairs and new work. A plumber on new construction revels in not having to mend a busted pipe but loves to lay new pipe. Same is true with electricians and others in the trade. A causal flip through the old yellow pages of menders and fixers in your community shows just how many things can be fixed and how many specialists are out there to do this. I honor this. In the same moment I mourn the loss of the TV repair guys that are just gone.

As I thought on mastery over the weekend, one element in the notion of what divides a craftsman and an artist-man is that craft can be passed on. 

A craft is often mechanical, linear and technical and so aspects can be measured, learned and tested and taught. But art can barely be described logically so it cannot be taught, only hinted at. Art can be taught about but only aspects can be passed on. Doing anything else sacrifices that individuated mind. 

What I do observe is that suggestions can be made, conversations had and through a screen of osmotic projection, one artist can ferment another. Can you imagine a Pollock or De Kooning workshop?? I can teach you easily how to paint like Pollock but instantly you see the philosophical quicksand here as its fundamentally impossible to reformat that magic — all we can ever achieve is a hollow mimicry. 

However a person inspired to paint like someone else, if genuinely moved, can achieve that osmotic absorption through sheer will of making and adherence to discipline. It will never be (and cannot be) the same but it can be a renewal of a sort and honor the originator. In my own work I have explored this through several enamoring experiences where I was just in love with someone’s approach. In the end, by slavishly working in what I felt was “their way,” I broke through to something else. So….

Art object making is an individuated effort of great fidelity and is grounded in the idea of individuality — and you give up individuality when you try to teach “art” directly. So only on the most general grounds (i.e., what art is about) can it be taught. It also cannot be taught from a position of elitism or opinionism because that misleads us to want general principles.

Truth is, I get into trouble when I depart from the teaching of bookbinding with all its range and try to bring people closer to what I do as an art-man. It is an honest trap and I fall into it partly because it is flattering to think I can demonstrate what I do. 

But making requires a line of thinking about the processes and even when I show my personal processes and methods, it is never a good-across-the-table fit. I can show my processes in craft and because of my affection for arcane materials and methods, I willingly demonstrate the making of things. Fortunately, the observant artist will always do, then, what they authentically do.

The muses are befuddled in our world today as we have every style of making and every artist is bombarded with a mix of messages from peers, critics, curators, art historians, and society. Artists, myself definitely included, then must choose a modality which best fits with our projections onto the world. 

We can paint like anyone that has come before us. We can find our own voice as well. 

The muses become even more confused when we go to great lengths to articulate arcane descriptions of the differences between art and craft or the differences between making and repairing. 

What specifically you are making or repairing determines much of what you gain from it. You will get what you get.

© 2018 – Timothy C. Ely – All Rights Reserved

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