A few years ago there was a rush of interest in vocational classes and "hands-on" work experience in the wake of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft from Penguin Press. Crawford was all kinds of rugged and effectively espoused the very American idea that you find your best self by having a tool in your hand. From the NYT review of his book:
Mr. Crawford needed to hear things gurgle and roar, and so it is perhaps
not a surprise to learn that he grew up to own his own motorcycle
repair shop. And in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” his passionate argument
for a brand of hands-on self-reliance, and a plea for the dignity of the
manual trades, he comes on like Ralph Waldo Emerson in a “Mad Max” get-up — leather jacket, fingerless gloves, sawed-off shotgun, the works. It’s an appealing combination.
Pretty hard not to love the guy, right?
I actually agree with a lot of Crawford's ideas and think everyone should have a good shop class, auto shop, cooking class, etc. behind them. (Add basic plumbing also!) The problem for me was that Shop Class was a pretty dull book to read. In the midst of all the gushing about Crawford's ideas, most reviewers failed to mention that it took a major effort to slog through the dense prose. The author might have a great idea but witty writer he was not. I couldn't finish the thing.
Enter Joe Cottonwood's 99 Jobs: Blood Sweat and Houses. First, it's self-published but get past your fears on that score. This is a highly readable, enjoyable, often funny and sometimes wry look at life as an independent carpenter. It's the story of how job-by-job, one man has supported himself and his family by working with his hands. Basically, Cottonwood's real life shows you how Crawford's ideas actually work. Then he goes one better and writes about it all as well.
The chapters are very short—usually only a couple of pages—and the jobs range from completely redoing a kitchen to a quick fix of a leak or two. His clients are sometimes rude, sometimes pushy, sometimes flirty, sometimes scary and, happily, sometimes delightful, funny and friendly. Cottonwood pulls no punches, telling readers how some folks refused to pay for his hard day's work and others wanted him to do a job they could not and then spent way too much time telling him how to do his work. It's clear that he was often frustrated on the job, but also that he met a lot of fantastic folks as well and did a lot wonderful work. And that is the point of 99 Jobs: the work and how it was done.
I like Joe Cottonwood's writing a lot; he's a genial author, someone who makes you think while remaining clear and concise in his prose. 99 Jobs is exactly the kind of book that many teens should be reading as they find their ways forward into adulthood. It's about getting the job and then getting the job done while listening to the people and the places around you. It's also about learning on the job which is perhaps the most misunderstood skill of all.
Crawford had nothing to say on listening to people; perhaps that is why I tired of him so fast and found so much more to learn from Joe Cottonwood.
For more info, check out his website.