Made By Hand: Book Review

I read Seth Godin’s review of Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World a few months ago and immediately put Mark’s book on hold at the library. Now, a few months later my hold was processed and I finally got Mark’s book. Here are some of my thoughts:

Made by Hand is an essay on DIY culture, a maker manifesto written by BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder, a fellow maker (editor-in-chief of Make Magazine) who decided to try out some of his own DIY projects in a decision to live a fulfilling life by being more connected to the world around him. There are two preview chapters and other freebies at the Made by Hand webpage that I encourage you to check out.

Mark’s honesty about the DIY experience, including all the bruises and failures, was what made this such an entertaining read. We follow Mark’s journey from the time he decided to get into DIY projects through his various pursuits: cigar box guitars, espresso machine hacking, urban free-range chicken keeping, and kombucha tea to name a few.  The experiences at times were hilarious, heartbreaking, and educational. I’ve been following some of these projects through the occasional posts on BoingBoing, and reading about Mark’s experience has inspired me to try my hand at a few of my own. (For a recent example, check out my iteration of Mark’s homebrew ginger beer recipe).  Most of Mark’s projects look hard, but they look like too much fun that it would be a shame not to try them out.

There was one passage in the book that resonated with me, and its not a part of the book review proper but I felt it appropriate to share:

A cartoonist isn’t like a writer. Writing requires a special kind of focus. Your mind must be utterly devoted to the task at hand. When I’m breaking down a strip or hammering out dialogue, I’m using that writer’s focus. But drawing and inking are different. They use different parts of the brain. I often find that when I’m drawing, only half my mind is on the work — watching proportions, balancing compositions, eliminating unnecessary details.

The other half is free to wander. Usually, it’s off in a reverie, visiting the past, picking over old hurts, or recalling that sense of being somewhere specific — at a lake during childhood, or in a nightclub years ago. These reveries are extremely important to the work, and they often find their way into whatever strip I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I wander off so far I surprise myself and laugh out loud. Once or twice, I’ve become so sad that I actually broke down and cried right there at the drawing table. So I tell those young artists that if they want to be cartoonists, the most important relationship they are going to have in their lives is with themselves.

Seth, The Quiet Art of Cartooning, The Walrus

Frauenfelder: I wonder if one of the main reasons people garden, or knit, or retire to their garages and basements to tinker, is because they enjoy this unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick, too.

Mark wrote this in reference to a passage where he was describing the meditative nature of rebuilding a chicken coop. The act of rebuilding and allowing his thoughts to wander enabled him to remember events and memories from his childhood. This excerpt resonated with me because I’ve had similar experiences while painting or cooking or working on a repetitive task. Last year, I tore out, sanded, painted and mounted a new shelf rack into my closet. The process took two weeks to complete but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. Friends and family didn’t understand when I tried to explain the peace and meditative nature of the work to them, but it was gratifying to hear that Mark had had a similar experience.

One topic in the book really stuck with me long after I’d finished reading it. Primarily, it was one of the central themes discussed in the book and alluded to in the book’s title. Western culture has gotten used to the idea of disposable material goods. From cellphones and any other number of gadgets to pretty much anything that breaks down, our dominant solution has been to dispose of it and buy another. Mark doesn’t have a solution to change this cultural mindset, although he does recommend fixing your old tools and objects instead of ditching them and buying replacements.  He also got me thinking about my relationship to the tools and gadgets that I own and how I interact with them in every day life. I try not to think about new gadgets in terms of their “marketed desirability”, and approach them instead as tools to serve a specific purpose.

You may not have DIY tendencies, but I still highly recommend Made By Hand as an entertaining and educational story.

Inspired by Mark’s own list, I’ve compiled my own list of DIY projects since reading Made By Hand. I’ve already done some of these, and others I’m hoping to do over the next year.

– Make sushi

– Learn bookbinding (I’m taking a course this November.)

– Start a garden in my backyard

– hack my desk (as in rebuild it, my desk’s on the verge of falling apart.)

– Learn rudimentary woodworking skills

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