November 23, 2019 7:43 PM - by Alexander Langlands - Subscribe

Faced with an endless supply of mass-manufactured products, we find ourselves nostalgic for goods bearing the mark of authenticity―hand-made tools, local brews, and other objects produced by human hands. Archaeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands reaches as far back as the Neolithic period to recover our lost sense of craft, combining deep history with detailed scientific analyses and his own experiences making traditional crafts. Craft brims with vivid storytelling, rich descriptions of natural landscape, and delightful surprises that will convince us to introduce more craft into our lives.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (3 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This was almost a great book. As it is, it's a pretty good book, that falls prey to the sort of a-historical bullshit people who romanticize the past tend to do. Look. It is 100% true that we are on the verge of loosing a lot of crafts and knowledge in the western world (really in the entire developing and developed world) due to a reliance on fossil fuels, and plastics, and mass produced stuff. But the idea that hand tilling a field is worth the man power and body breaking labor vs a tractor because it's more real and sustainable... is really really bullshit. I mean, in some places it might be! IF you have a space that a tractor can't get too sure! But like the OG tractors were attached to literal horse power which in a post-fossil fuel world would be better then... ARG. He actually argues that skep bee-keeping is better then modern keeping despite having to destroy the hive without frames. Not all chapters are like this. He makes some damn good points about old herding techniques and animal husbandry and stuff like using straw for thatching and feeding sheep that are a thousand times better then modern industrialized ag. He's the guy from the Tales from the Green Valley series of shows up until wartime farm. He is also writing from an INCREDIBLY English perspective which is too be fair, his thing, but he seems to be writing this grand prescriptive for the future without I think fully acknowledging this bias. That being said- this is a good book. It's just if it was maybe 100 more pages and written slightly better, (and if he spelled it fucking craft instead of craeft fucking gobshite) This could be an amazing book and not merely a good one.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:52 PM on November 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

I agree except for the cræft part. I’m willing to allow the author that affectation, if only to make the book stand out on a shelf.

But yeah, he often oversells the value of a traditional craft as being substantially or even strictly superior to the modern method, when it would suffice to argue that these crafts are worth preserving as cultural heritage and (in many cases) artistry, independent of their direct economic value as means of production.

And I say that as someone with a very (pardon me) cræfty hobby, hand tool woodworking. I would never argue that it’s superior to power tool woodworking for production work or even for a lot of bespoke work. For me its value is in the pleasure of skilled labor, a combination of physical mastery and mental problem solving, and the connection to the process and materials that gets lost in a powered, assembly line production.
posted by jedicus at 12:15 PM on November 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed this book - I like the confessional polemic as a genre - but man the author can be infuriatingly glib. The weaving chapter (near and dear to me) is a good example - dude wants to talk about wattle hurdles, that’s cool, but he feels the need to justify that by claiming that weaving *derives from* hurdles? Come on. We have direct evidence of weaving from early Neolithic - 6000bce- same as the earliest surviving mats. Yes, probably interlacing stiff materials preceded interlacing floppy ones, for logistical reasons, but there isn’t any surviving evidence to prove it, or suggest a large gap between the two. Especially when humans had twisted yarn/twine at least another 7k years earlier, maybe as far back as 20k bce.

Frankly it read to me as a desire to spend his attention on more masculine-coded aspects of craft. Otherwise he might also have even briefly acknowledged any of the approaches to garment construction and embellishment - patternmaking, draping, sewing, knitting and crocheting, tatting, bobbin-lace, embroidery, netting, (and for completeness and because I am obsessed lately: sprang), which mostly all have a thousand years+ as “traditional crafts”. (Sprang goes back to the Neolithic! Obsessed!)

Even the chapter on shoes and harness only gets into leather and tanning (and horse breeding), but not the sewing which is critical.

Dude can write the book he wants to write, but maybe own up to the narrowness?

Still, I enjoyed reading this. I learned interesting things, although I am suspicious enough not to take his account as necessarily complete or accurate. And maybe he was trying to rouse the warm glow of mild outrage?
posted by janell at 10:36 PM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

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