Book: Made By Hand

made by hand

I got this last summer during one of my few lapses into book-buying… after going 2-3 years without any serious book-buying urges, I’ve started collecting again. Mostly used books, as I come across them (my kryponite — I am powerless in the face of cheap used books!), but I had a gift certificate to Powells.com and this one called to me. I thought it was going to be something other than it was. It was pretty good, but I had a few problems with it.

I don’t read BoingBoing.net, but this is written by Mark Frauenfelder, who is the founder of BoingBoing, and has a long history of being an editor of influential tech-y magazines such as Wired. He is currently editor at Make Magazine, which I do enjoy (although I don’t buy it). I was kind of surprised to learn that the editor of Make Magazine did not start out as a DIY-type. Instead, he started learning about it late in the game and has only started doing DIY projects since the mid-to-late-2000s. But before he started making his own kombucha and building chicken coops, he and his wife ditched their Los Angeles life and moved, with their small children, to the remote tropical island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific, to start life again free from the constraints and wired-ness of modern life. And there begins my problem with this book (and with many of these current memoir-esque books so popular right now).

He and his wife are both writers and editors and can do their jobs long-distance, which is great. So they can, theoretically, move anywhere they like. However, it just grates that they decided that moving to a tropical island was the best way to unplug. It’s called pulling a geographical. I get it — I do! I’d love to do that — in theory. But it just feels like more of the same: privileged white people who have too much money deciding that this fancy world they’ve helped create is just not for them anymore, so they decide to go native. And, of course, are defeated by the realities of “going native” — disease, hardship, and, ironically, the lack of technology. So they move back to the states after six months, to try and make the best of — sigh, the hardship of it — homesteading on their half-acre of land (plus a modern house) in Los Angeles. Gosh, do you think it’s possible to have a more meaningful life right where you are?

I’m giving this book a hard time, and I did enjoy most of it, although it rubbed me the wrong way in places. The author details his explorations in the world of DIY: beekeeping, chicken-husbandry, tutoring his own kid, making stuff from scratch, fermentation, etc. It’s all very trendy and nice and some of it was informative and inspiring. And, expensive. For every project, he heads right to Home Depot and buys all the stuff he needs. He buys kits. He buys books. He travels to visit experts. He does not NEED to DIY. He chooses to. He could Hire An Expert (HAP). But he wants to learn and have fun doing it himself — which is admirable. I guess what kind of got on my nerves was the fact that he does not balk at multiple trips to Home Depot or the cost of kits, etc. It’s fun for him — it’s not a necessity. He does do quite a bit of foraging and re-use — okay. I’ll give him that. It’s just… well, I think you know what I mean. Although I think it’s great, it’s a little annoying that he clearly has a choice (as opposed to most of the people he interviews — they make do, make it themselves, and salvage objects out of necessity — which I don’t know why this feels more authentic to me, but it does — and who cares about authenticity when it comes to DIY?  — but still my uncomfortableness remains).

Clearly I have conflicting feelings about the whole modern DIY movement anyway. On the one hand — yay! I think it’s great that people are learning to do things themselves. I think it’s awesome that people are keeping bees and chickens, and that there is a market for items which are fixable — not just replaceable. On the other hand, the trendiness of it, the highly-paid white folks who can afford to make plenty of mistakes and (ironically) buy all the equipment they need — this grates.

Some of this comes from my own righteous sense of “I was here first” — I am not the most DIY person out there, but I do many things by myself from scratch and salvage without even thinking about it, because that is how I was raised. My dad is brilliant at fixing everything and I try to learn everything I can from him — wiring, gardening, fixing stuff of all kinds. My mom is very creative and taught me to cook, sew, preserve, fix household items and clothing, and taught me how to love thrifting. So it kind of comes naturally to me (and, I assume, lots of kids brought up in small towns with parents who didn’t have much money) — the privilege of being able to choose was not an option. So instead, I suppose, I have the privilege choosing of doing it myself — because I have the knowledge.

This is all kind of confusing.

I could also have been influenced by the most recent issue of Sunset magazine, which I found to be incredibly pretentious. Sunset has been shifting more and more away from DIY and How-To, to Lifestyle and Home Trends for the past 5-10 years, and the usefulness of the magazine has declined greatly. This month took the cake. There was a big 3-page article on a family (rich, of course, living in a big house in San Francisco) who decided to radically unplug. No modern conveniences for them! Oh, well, except for nice things like toilets and bathtubs and nice countertops. They do not own a coffeemaker — they have stovetop espresso maker instead! (what is the big difference? really.) No web, so they have to read — gasp! Paper newspapers and real books! No digital readouts on appliances! A manual orange juicer! they make bread — wait for it — by hand! From their own home-ground flour! In their bright naturally-lit large-windowed kitchen with modern appliances (as long as they don’t have those ugly LED lights!) and marble countertops. Sigh. You can read all about it here and here.

The next article was a first-person of going vegan for three days. CAN SHE DO IT!? Apparently not. She was foiled by cheese and wine. She made it two and a half days, but wouldn’t you know it? She felt so much healthier and lighter! So virtuous! And hungry! Did I mention hungry? Light-headed almost! People. Eating vegan is not that difficult. I’m not a vegan, but plenty of days I inadvertently eat vegan. It’s not that hard.

I’m not sure why the juxtaposition of these two articles grated so hard — something about the supposed austere superiority of the one (no gauche red LED lights! grind your own flour!) against the supposed difficulty of an “austere” diet like veganism… it’s a luxury to choose any of these things. Period.

I’m not articulating this well. But you can see that perhaps I was primed to be annoyed by the tossing around of dollars in the supposed DIY handbook.

Anyway, back to the book. After all my grumping, I agree with the author of Made By Hand — so much of the time, it’s way more fun, more engaging, more meaningful to make it or do it yourself. I don’t really want to keep bees, but I’m glad lots of other people do. I would love to have chickens, but I’ve decided that we have too many predators (there is a chapter about chicken-keeping in the book that helped cement this decision for me). But I do love making stuff — all kinds of stuff — on my own. I love building things from salvage. I like preserving stuff from the garden. I cook from scratch almost daily. It’s fun, it keeps my brain working, and I feel more attached to my things, to my home.

Was it a good book? It was okay. However, if you’re new to DIY, I suppose it would be inspiring. It was a fun, fast read, although I ended up with my (chicken?) feathers ruffled.

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As a side note, I found a nice resource for some reading suggestion lists: UC Berkeley has some good suggestions on their Summer Reading Lists page. Next up for me is my book club book, The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Hoeg, and then I think I have two or three others I should get out of the way, but then I’m sort of tempted by a big huge read like Shogun or maybe I should start Anna K. Hmm… so many choices. I am excited to start reading in earnest again.

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