Monday, June 7, 2010

Review: Made by Hand

Mark Frauenfelder. Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. New York. Portfolio. 2010. $25.95.

In an America in which almost all things are boughten, Made by Hand celebrates what has become known as maker culture, which itself celebrates the pleasures of self-reliance and imperfection.¹ Mark Frauenfelder, co-editor of Boing Boing and editor of Make, has written not a manifesto but a sequence of engaging stories drawn from life, the first of which tells of moving with his wife and children from California to the South Pacific island of Rarotonga. Frauenfelder soon realized that the possibilities of a better life were to be found not in a different place but in a different approach to daily living: less buying, more making. Thus begin his efforts, back in California, to acquire various sets of skills — growing fruits and vegetables, modifying an espresso machine, raising chickens, keeping bees, building cigarbox guitars, carving wooden spoons, and making fermented foods, all undertaken with an intention of becoming “more mindful of our daily activities, more appreciative of what we have, and more engaged with the systems and things that keep us alive and well.”

The emphasis throughout Made by Hand is not “how-to” but “why-to”: there are no diagrams, no project plans, though there are useful bits of advice along the way, both project-specific (“Screws, not glues”) and universal (cross your property line — in other words, go to the store — and you’ll get nothing done for the rest of the day). As someone who teaches, I especially like what Frauenfelder says about mistakes as a necessary means of learning. Proceeding by trial and error (and more error), he gains deeper respect for art and nature, and greater confidence in his ability to solve problems. In this learning process, there is of course no escaping consumer culture: Made by Hand is filled with trips to buy lumber, tools, and beekeeping supplies. The investments of time and money sometimes make for difficult practical questions, as when Frauenfelder wonders whether a daily handful of eggs justifies the work of a coop and fence for chickens. In such situations, one must take a long view, weighing costs against future returns, both tangible and intangible.² And those returns are significant indeed. As Frauenfelder and his family come to agree, “Recreational shopping . . . is no match for recreational making.”

Reading Made by Hand makes me think of a famous WWII-era poster, which I’m now tempted to revise: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or — make it yourself.

Thanks to Portfolio for a review copy of this book.

¹ I like the word “boughten,” borrowed from Robert Frost’s poem “Provide, Provide”: “Better to go down dignified / With boughten friendship at your side / Than none at all. Provide, provide!”

² The long view can also be a handy way to justify buying, say, a nice fountain pen.

comments: 5

Berit said...

I find the simplest "change" to make for starting on this type of path is to give up watching TV. Television viewing is, I suppose, the mental version of stepping off your property--do it and you won't get anything done for the rest of the day, mentally speaking.

I unconsciously "gave up" TV while in college studying graphic design. (Arts aren't simply a lecture/paper/exam style teaching; a full-time student also has to produce an almost frightening amount of "works" each week). I found myself pining for something under an hour of time a day to enjoy my beloved video games or perhaps instead a nice 2-3 hr weekend marathon, but never missed TV.

I should amend this to say that I do occasionally enjoy TV on DVD; a little over a year ago a friend insisted I borrow his volumes of The West Wing, and I enjoyed them enormously. But I consider this an entirely different beast--it occurs only once every year or two, and the time-savings! "Half-hour" tv programs are really only 22 min. long, which means that one can watch 3 of them in just over an hour. And I do like to. Take that, cliffhangers!

Michael Leddy said...

When our kids were young, we paid them each fifty cents a day to not watch television. It was their choice. The arrangement lasted many months and led to all sorts of imaginative flights, lots of making, to use Mark Frauenfelder’s word.

I think for many young people, using social media is now a much greater timesuck than watching television. Disengaging from Facebook would be the equivalent of killing the television.

Berit said...

You're right. (If memory serves, you, sir are are professor of something to do with the English language, correct? And are therefore more exposed to Today's Youth.) It seems I erroneously consider myself in touch with young people--perhaps because I still think I'm young. But, at 27 years, that type of "young" is already 10 years gone from me. Hmn.

I steadfastly refuse to join Facebook. Yup. Not young.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, I’m an English prof. No Facebook for me either, partly because it’s an introvert’s nightmare but also because I’m deeply creeped out by Mark Zuckerberg.

Berit said...

Oh! I had to google him as I had no idea who he was. I did know that FB was originally limited to college students, but didn't realize it was started one.

I do feel creeped-out; it seems that he had a very good intellect and what looks to be access to a fine education, and this is what he's made of it product: a calculated morsel of "evil" and a pile of cash.