A Dirty Monk with a Vision

Book Review: The Lost Carving: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by David Esterly. (Viking: 2012) 281 pp.

Orig. published in the Boston Globe, January 4, 2013.

The Lost Carving is a memoir about woodcarving. There are precedents, of course: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974) called itself “An Inquiry into Values,” and the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft (2010) by Matthew B. Crawford was subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” David Esterly’s book is a “Journey to the Heart of Making.”  Inquiry or journey: what’s the difference? For the most part, pretensions: Esterly doesn’t have any. He’s not trying to convince the reader of anything (though the reader may end up convinced), he’s simply trying to understand his own path from English Lit graduate student to becoming the world’s greatest living practitioner of high relief naturalistic wood carving, an art form previously thought to have reached its peak in the early eighteenth century in the work of the Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Esterly begins his story with two conversion moments. As an American student at Cambridge in the 1970s he happened to walk into St. James’s Church in London and spotted Gibbons’ carvings above the altar. “A shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and I stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me… The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.” [44] Instantly obsessed with Gibbons, Esterly resolved to research his work and write about it. But research wasn’t enough. “More than the mind needed to be deployed,” [53] he thought, so he bought himself the raw materials used by Gibbons himself: chisels, gouges, and limewood – the preferred medium of high relief woodcarvers. “I found that as the blade moved through the wood my whole body moved, too, with it and against it at the same time. A wave of pleasure passed through me.” [58] Esterly was in love. He turned his back on the academic life and taught himself to carve.

Years later in 1986, now a master woodcarver, Esterly was called back to England, to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, where a fire had recently destroyed many of the original Gibbons carvings that decorated the royal apartments. Esterly was hired to the team of artisans who would repair the lost carvings. He recognized the significance of the project; it was a culmination of Esterly’s life work (what Matthew B. Crawford would call soulcraft) and a reunion with his great teacher and master, Grinling Gibbons. It was also a reckoning: would he really be capable of repairing this masterpiece?

Some of the challenges he faced were technical – before the invention of sandpaper, how did carvers smooth their finished pieces? – but even more of them were bureaucratic, as Esterly navigated the cliques and politics of the British heritage industry. Along the way he reveals some of the lessons he’s learned through the practice of his craft. The wisdom that comes from making mistakes, for example, and the way in which “disaster allows nature to take control, to create its own order. Disaster can be a fine designer.” [67] He learns to be humble in the presence of a block of wood. “The wood began as submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life,” he writes: “A carver begins like a god and ends as slave.” [176] The Lost Carving is a book about the rewards of hard work and learning to appreciate one’s limits. It’s also an exploration of the ways in which great art can enrich our lives in the most tangible ways. This is a serious, beautiful book about craftsmanship written not by an aspiring philosopher but, as Esterly proudly describes himself, by “a dirty monk with a vision.” [258]

So where DO good ideas come from? A review.

Thomas Edison with one of his best ideas - an invention that came to signify inspiration itself: the lightbulb. In today's Boston Globe I review the new Steven Johnson book, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: The natural history of innovation (Riverside: 2010). The one point I did not have space to make in my review was the unsung debt owed by Johnson (and many others) to the great James Burke, best known for his BBC television series, CONNECTIONS. Johnson's new book is in many ways a streamlined, sexier book version of CONNECTIONS, a show which traced the incredible paths of various scientific innovations from ancient times to the present. I can't recommend it highly enough.

My review of Johnson's book can be found on the Boston Globe site or, for your convenience, below.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION Since there’s no copyright on book titles, Steven Johnson could have called his new book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions even though Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962. Instead, he went with Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Although indebted to Kuhn, Johnson is interested in much more than just scientific revolutions. This book covers everything from the history of reading to the influence of Brian Eno on hip hop producer Hank Schocklee. But mostly it’s about Charles Darwin. Where Good Ideas Come From begins and ends with Darwin, the intellectual hero of our day (and yesterday and presumably tomorrow), the genius whose insights into everything from the formation of tropical atolls to the process of evolution underlie so much of modern life. Darwin is the perfect foil for Johnson, both for his creative ideas as well as his creative habits. If that sounds confusing, consider how Johnson describes his book “This is a book about the space of innovation… If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” [15] “The space of innovation” is a pretty abstract concept. Johnson knows it and equips himself with an entire ordnance depot full of examples in order to explain. He’s not interested in merely recounting the well-known tale of how seventeenth-century coffeehouses fueled the European Enlightenment; no, this is a rapid-fire tour of “spaces” large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise -- we’re talking reefs, webs, brains, networks, platforms, and quadrants. Johnson steps back now and again to remind us of the bigger picture. He’s distilled seven patterns or properties and assigned a chapter to each: The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation, and Platforms. “The more we embrace these patterns,”Johnson argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” [15-16] Johnson has been interested in these ideas for a long time – nearly every book he’s written addresses an aspect of human innovation or the properties of intellectual networks, from his very first book, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997) to The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008), and it’s clear that his research on the subject runs very deep. Where Good Ideas Come From may be the ultimate distillation of all his thinking on these issues and at times that’s the book’s challenge: it can read less like a book and more like a series of interesting concepts. Take the first five paragraphs of the Exaptation chapter, for example, in which Johnson leaps from Pliny the Elder and the invention of the screw press (for making wine) to fifteenth-century Rhineland and the bubonic plague to a first-century C.E. Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng (the inventor of movable type) and finally Johannes Gutenberg, who “took a machine designed to get people drunk [the Greco-Roman screw press], and turned it into an engine for mass communication.” [151] One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson’s maneuvers here, yet one can’t help wishing for a bit more time with each of these fascinating characters and their inventions. Distillation is a fine thing, but it’s also nice to sit back and slowly enjoy a tumbler of whiskey. Johnson achieves a more pleasing balance of story and factoid in the chapter entitled The Slow Hunch. Here, he constructs a dramatic and chilling set piece about the “Phoenix Memo,” the unheeded July 2001 warning from an Arizona FBI field agent named Ken Williams who tried to alert the U.S. government to the presence of suspicious foreign students enrolled in American flight schools. Johnson threads the tale of the Phoenix Memo throughout the chapter, visiting along the way with (naturally) Charles Darwin’s journals, John Locke’s indexing system, a Victorian England how-to book entitled Enquire Within Upon Everything, Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, and the corporate environment of Google. Although packed with wide-ranging details, the narrative shadow of the doomed Phoenix Memo is always present, adding weight and a sense of foreboding to Johnson’s larger argument about the power of the “slow hunch.” It’s one of his most important ideas: that great innovations do not usually appear in a flash of inspiration but instead they accrete “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.” [79] By the end of the chapter, I was convinced. Steven Johnson must occasionally wonder why he’s not Malcolm Gladwell; that is, why his bestselling books haven’t become zeitgeisty pop blockbusters in the manner of Gladwell’s. Surely “The Adjacent Possible” is just as catchy a concept as “The Tipping Point”… then again, maybe not. While Johnson and Gladwell write about many of the same issues (they’re equally obsessed, for instance, with “the strength of weak ties”) and bring their ideas to life through the use of capsule biographies, Gladwell lingers on the unexpectedly interesting quirks of a high school basketball coach or a forgotten nineteenth-century scientist (and yes, sometimes he lingers too long, but that’s another review). Johnson, meanwhile, speeds through the connections between the coach, the scientist, and fifteen other seemingly disparate people across time to make his point about creativity, about communication, about idea-making. Johnson’s concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them.

Great Signage of Wyoming: Laramie


Last weekend we drove through Wyoming, en route to hot springs.

Laramie: pop. 27,000 people / 23 fantastic signs and storefronts.

Above: Marquee for the Wyo Theater. Currently playing (surprise!) the French film, I've Loved You So Long.


Above: Alexander's Fine Jewelry. Love the pink awning and those wonderful serving dishes.

My personal favorite: Alibi Drive In Liquors / Bar. There's such a great Jetsons feel to this sign.

It's Not All Death and Umlauts, Although Most of it Is.

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As a not-as-distant-as-you-might-think relative of William Faulkner, I like to do my part to ensure that the world at large recognizes the influence he's had. No, not just on graduate students and Cormac McCarthy, but on the wide, heavy world of metal. If you doubt me, look no further than The Flow Chart of Heavy Metal Band Names, compiled by Doogie Horner (another possible Faulkner reference right there).

It's a straight shot (S/SW) from the core metal principle of Death to Faulkner References, under whose auspices you will find: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Corncob Rape. That last one might actually be a Cormac McCarthy trope, although perhaps I'm confusing it with Sodomization of Watermelon from McCarthy's brilliant novel Suttree. Alright then, I'm offering Sodomization of Watermelon as a freebie to all you aspiring metalheads out there.

I know what you're thinking: Where does The Big Lebowski fit into all this? Glad you asked. I recently learned that Faulkner's influence on the American geniuses Joel and Ethan Coen extends well beyond the obvious target, Barton Fink (in which the character of W.P. Mayhew, the genteel, drunken, Southern writer is clearly based on Faulkner).

According to John B. Padgett of the Ole Miss Department of English: "In Raising Arizona, the escaped convicts are the Snopes brothers (from Faulkner's "Snopes Trilogy" of novels), and in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Penny’s fiancee, Vernon T. Waldrip, is the name of a character referred to in The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]. And some viewers have even noted a Faulkner reference in the Coen Brothers’ bowling movie, The Big Lebowski: as in the short story “Barn Burning,” a key plot point centers on the issue of a soiled rug."

There you have it. William Cuthbert Faulkner (1897-1962), perhaps the only human being capable of spanning the aesthetic chasm between Ozzy Osbourne and Jackie Treehorn. That Faulkner. He really tied the room together.