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JOEL Joel's Blog

In Praise of Shadows


In Praise of Shadows 4Lately there has been a bunch blogged about the relevance of traditional crafts in this day and age. In thinking about crafts I realized that it's been awhile since I wrote about books that influenced me so here goes.

For me the most important thing I ever read about the importance of craft objects in our lives comes from reading Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows". It's a thin volume, only 73 pages long, and was first published in 1933 in Japan by Tanizaki who was a well known novelist at the time.

I first read the book in my 20's because someone thought that as I liked making things I might like the book and also because in my day carrying a short book by a Japanese author was always a good way to meet women (I don't remember that it worked - but since the book is so short I might not have been carrying it with me long enough).

In any case I thought the book interesting but very xenophobic. Which kind of makes sense because it was written in pre-war Japan when xenophobia was becoming the way of the land.

Several years ago I was talking with Toshio Odate and he recommended the book to me and I said I had read it and found it zenophobic and he said I should reread it because obviously I didn't understand it.

I reread it and he was right. I won't try to tell you what it's about but if you go to and search they have the book with a "look inside"

In any case we don't sell it so this is not a specific plug - get it from the library instead.

In retrospect, thinking of the books I have read about craft, or really the decline of craft, I have to remember that every generation has complained that the arts and crafts of the previous generation were being lost. The nineteenth century had William Morris, Tanizaki is of course twentieth century, and modern bloggers and teachers such as Robin Wood, Doug Stowe, and Paul Sellers also bemoan the loss of craft.

The problem is that they are all right. Every generation has simplified production to use less labor and less craft. At the same time every generation has also found new craft in new inventions and technologies. How exciting it must have been in the eighteenth century to be able to buy tools made of consistent quality steel and use them to work all sorts of exciting materials imported from colonies all over the world. The challenge is the same today except what most people find exciting is the Internet and the silicon chip. What we lose in the process, and this is what I think Morris, Tanizaki, and their modern children rightly complain about, is the loss of an important psychological link to our past and a repression of a natural human instinct to use tools and to make physical things. We have become consumers. Each generation looks back at the previous generation and thinks that the previous generation had it harder (which they did) but somehow by making stuff themselves and by buying craft made stuff from people they knew and not from an anonymous factory, they had a better balance of new and old.

Join the conversation
01/15/2013 Doug Stowe
Joel, thanks for mentioning my blog. I wouldn't say I bemoan the loss of craft, but I am trying to do something about it, as are Robin and Paul. I am curious what woodworkers think of Legos and the like... Legos are making a resurgence as an educational tool in the area of robotics. They are made to snap together without actually having to develop any skill in their use. And perhaps the same could be said of the new Lego robotic kits that make robot designs that you can control with your iPhone.

In the meantime, it is becoming difficult to explain to those who have not been challenged to develop the simplest of skills, the ways developing those skills shapes one's whole relationship to life, appreciation for the past, human culture and the like. Certainly, technology has moved on from the hand saw and chisel and will keep doing so, but there is cause to keep these older technologies alive in our hands. There is value in learning to use tools that also give cause and pause for us to learn about ourselves.
01/15/2013 Peter McLaughlin
Joel and Doug's comments reminded me of "hand work" classes. For those of you with school age children, or especially those about to have school age children, I encourage you to check out the Waldorf School(s) in your area. Hand work is an integral part of the Waldorf pedagogy. The kids even make their own textbooks, (no joke, they're often jaw-dropping). Boys and girls learn to knit and sew, and in high school they all are introduced to chisels and hand saws. (My wife still has and wears the polar-fleece hoodie our son made over 20 years ago for an 8th grade river rafting trip). Waldorf families are encouraged to avoid TV as much as possible. Computers are not introduced until high school. And surprise!!! the kids often get into ivy league schools. I'm not a rabid believer by ANY means, but if your craft ideas spill over into your approach to every day life, and you want to impart that to your children, then Waldorf might be for you.
01/15/2013 Bud Jenkins
I'm new to following your blog, Joel, but you hit a topic that I feel a lot of passion toward. Those of us who have spent a lifetime doing craft as a hobby are motivated by something. It is not be our profession, but it is part of who we are. The "loss of an important psychological link to our past and a repression of a natural human instinct to use tools and to make physical things"... describes it well. The Sloyd method of education was based on a belief and value that teaching kids to make things with their hands educated them and developed their character to be better adults. I think there is no better thing any of us can do than to pass on our curiousity and confidence to the youth in our lives. Teach them to be curious about how to make things, and help them build confidence by making stuff with their hands (and your tools). Each generation lives in a different setting, but are we so different in the fulfillment we get from craft? I doubt it.
01/17/2013 Eric R
Good view on your take of this particular phenomon Joel.
You have good insight.
Thank you.
02/06/2013 Fitzhugh
I spent each summer growing up re-reading the Foxfire series at my grandma's house in the Great Smokey Mountains in NC, a world away from my California home, both geographically and culturally. These books, still in print, are the result of one of the greatest school projects ever. High school students went out and interviewed folk in the mountains, capturing the skills and lore of the people just as that lifestyle ended. Check them out from your library. The series is quite similar in essence to Roy Underhill's favorite book: “Woodworking in Estonia” by A. Viires, only that was a doctoral thesis written in soviet Russia (amazing read just for the odd point of view). I was able to order a copy through our library. Interlibrary loan is fantastic!

Our neighbor teaches at a Waldorf school, wonderful program.
Thanks for sharing this book, I'll search for a copy through our library.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.