The Illiterate Light


Photo by Narayan Nayar

When I finish writing a book, I send the manuscript to about a dozen people for comment, criticism and a typo hunt (and yet mistakes are like weeds).

With “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” about half the reviewers made a similar comment: Why don’t you expand the book’s seven brief sections on design philosophy and workshop ethics?

My answer is difficult to put into words, but here goes: My eyes glaze over when I read books, articles or blog posts that are entirely about the philosophy of the craft. I’ve read a good number of books on craft philosophy during the last 30 years. My dad had a bunch of them on our family’s bookshelves in the 1970s, and this type of literature is now experiencing a renaissance.

Here’s what goes through my head when I read this stuff: Hmmm. Good idea, but you already said this in a slightly different way 20 pages ago. Why do you have to use PhD-level language to describe this simple thing? OK, I think you’re writing in circles. Wait, maybe I’m just dumb.

Perhaps it’s my newspaper training, but I attempt to write for an 8th-grade audience and to be as laconic brief as possible.

Plus, I don’t think ideas about craft are particularly suited for words. My feelings about the craft are evident when I’m at the bench, not sitting on the couch with a book or a laptop. So I try to make my books work like a road sign that tells you what’s ahead. The road sign isn’t the thing – a construction zone, grooves in the pavement or a mountain switchback. It’s only a brief idea, a symbol, representing the experience ahead.

Reading the road sign or the book isn’t enough to know what’s really ahead. You have to pick up the tools or put your foot down on the accelerator to really get it.

Alfred Korzybski put it best: “The map is not the territory.”


The best I can do is this: Give you a peek at the rich tapestry of illiterate ideas and convince you that you can build seemingly complex things that you thought were out of your reach. If you read it and then do it, then you’ll get it.

The first line of 2011’s “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” was “disobey me,” a Russian paradox that challenges the ideas of authority and submission. How can you follow the advice without disobeying the text or obeying the speaker?

“The Anarchist’s Design Book” begins with a quote that no publisher should use in a book. It’s a segment of a sermon by a 13th-century Parisian preacher that I encountered years ago in an essay about early European printing.

“What knowledge is this which thieves may steal, mice or moths eat up, fire or water destroy?”

Your fingers don’t speak English, French or Dutch for that matter.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. While editing and photography of “The Anarchist’s Design Book” is complete, we still have a few plates to make. So we are aiming for a late February release.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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26 Responses to The Illiterate Light

  1. duckfarmer27 says:

    Chris – ‘write for 8th grade level and be brief’. That is the only way to do it! Unless of course we are into some higher level of science where one has to use the big words. Otherwise it is just pontificating (if I can use a big word) to impress.

    • tsstahl says:

      “‘write for 8th grade level and be brief’. That is the only way to do it!”

      A big issue with that approach is disrespect for the different culture and experiences of the reader. Plain and succinct to you can easily be alien to rural Elbonians*. Often times things, whether conceptual or procedural, are repeated in different ways to reinforce the material for the person who got it the first time, and to give the ignorant another mental corner to chew on in hopes of that AHA! moment. You can really get lost in the weeds trying to write for everybody; think political correctness run amok.

      Part of my experience in recent years has been reading 19th and early 20th century books on craft. It is apparent to me that there was a common vernacular of the time to describe physical actions that cut across all trades. An example phrase that pops up regularly is ‘showing X to Y’ for, usually, getting the next measurement, but it could also be a design element; the difference being obvious by context. I have noticed Chris resurrecting some of these phrases/practices in his recent writing and applaud the effort.

      This got too long too fast for which I apologize. I’m stopping here even though I touched on stuff that could use more clarity. 🙂


  2. “Hey, why don’t YOU write a book on design philosophy or workshop ethics?”

    Or would that response be too abrasive?

  3. Sean Hughto says:

    “before practice, the theory is useless; after practice, the theory is obvious”

    And, very pretty table.

  4. Ricky Irvine says:

    More interesting would be workshop philosophy and design ethics.

  5. lscarmic says:

    I totally agree! To me, a lot of the fun of learning has been in figuring out my own philosophy and ethics as I go. I sometimes wish there were more words to tell me exactly how something should be, but in the end, there aren’t, so I just try something and figure it out – or I don’t, and just make a nice fire. That being said, development of my own philosophy continues by, at times, doing exactly what you or another teacher says do. Thinking about the process as we go and mentally questioning each decision along the way leads me to “what I would’ve done” which in turn adds another brick to my philosophy house. If a questionable step or design element pops up, I try to suspend my disbelief until the end of the project to see exactly how it translates through the project. If it doesn’t work out in the end, I still have a nice piece of furniture, plus more knowledge than I probably even realize.

  6. Chris,
    One could argue that you would be an obvious choice to attempt to write on the topic of philosophy of the craft. Since you have been inoculated against the rambling and the self-referential and you are one of the few people to write on the topic who was trained as a writer, you might be able to pull off the trick.
    However, I respect your choice to avoid those thorny places and look forward to reading whatever you have chosen to put to paper. Whatever processes you have used in the past, have made for enjoyable and enlightened reading (for me, at least). Keep it coming!

    Wishing you and your family the best of the holidays,

  7. greenebelly says:

    Today’s word of the day~Reaffirmation ~What and however you are doing it, do not stop. You have gotten myself, and my ten year old daughter out into the garage to join you on this whacky hand tool voyage(trip for the eighth graders). So thanks.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Why is it when I see most of Narayan’s photo’s I consider pitching my camera?

  9. Chris, I very much enjoy the way your write, hence my reasons for buying and reading your books. I struggle with certain with some the math in building, but I still try my best to completed my projects. I have started back at the beginning. Making 100 right cuts, 100 left cuts, working to a line keeping with in the line. Cutting 100 dove tails. Yes I make a lot of mistakes, but I always come back and try again. It is starting to sink in now, I have also been doing it by hand a lot more, where I have learned to appreciate the craft a lot more. I really enjoy your writing, I am self taught through out my life. I have reach the level with in my job that I wanted to, but where I feel I failed myself is in writing. I have worked very hard to getting better at it, taking different courses.
    I will say I have read just about every work you have written and enjoyed each and every article. So thank you and please do not change, on days when things look down, I open an email and read something you have written a smile comes across my face and everything looks brighter. This might not be the place to say this, but I truly hope you and your Family have a wonderful Christmas and Safe and Happy New Year. I look forward to your new book in 2016..

  10. jwatriss says:

    I have a lot of books like that. The more I worked with wood, and with clients, the more a lot of the ‘craft writing’ felt pretty masturbatory.

    Getting a project out the door is a lot like getting a three year old out the door. You can’t really rush some things, but you can’t really F around either.

    My opinion: (this being the Internet and all…)

    Anyone who’s trying to meet a deadline can’t pontificate about the glory of craftsmanship, and communing with a tree. The poetry is advertising copy, pure and simple.

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time to sit on the couch, one hand in a book, and the other in your pants. I just don’t consider that to be ‘productive time.’

  11. Chris – The map can never be the territory, because you speak from your experience, and others read from theirs. A 100% direct information dump can never be expected. I do a lot of technical document review, and most is done to catch typos and simple mistakes. But if I, who knows all about what my department writes, cannot follow a statement, it gets redlined and re-worked. When I read woodworking or design texts I am always looking for that Idea, method, or process (tool) for my tool belt, or that one nugget to chew over and develop for my next project. If you can pass along a clear idea or concept, your readers should be able to understand, but also add their experience, and come up with something new. Don’t lose them in verbosity. Don’t put them to sleep. Keep it simple. You can only add to their map – You can’t create their territory.

  12. flatironjoe says:

    I fully expect this book to be the Jeet Kune Do of woodworking.

  13. fitz says:

    Yeah…but you are well-versed in sesquipedalian banter.

  14. calebjamesplanemaker says:

    I very much dislike reading about someone else’s woodworking philosophy. I just start hearing “blah blah blah” and I flip flip flip to what I am looking for. If I ever write anything like this my approach is “woodworking for dummies”. Just give it to me and give it to me straight. Thank you for keeping it to the basic concepts while amusing me at the same time. >

  15. Alan Garner says:

    I commented to a friend that the three “Rs” of learning are repetition, repetition, repetition. He said he thought that was too repetitive, and that he preferred repetition, reiteration, and restatement.

  16. Very well selected first quote. Perfect for a book intended to get you to put it down and go do.

  17. joefromoklahoma says:

    “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” – heh, indeedy – words of advice from an old carpenter.

    Your second point is crucial and you are completely correct that it is learned in the doing and not in the reading or thinking; but I wonder if it is enough to say “read it, do it and you’ll get it”, though I want to think that that’s so. It seems as if, somewhere’s in the journey, skill and attitude became so inextricably entwined as to make them indistinguishable – and yet I remember when learning the process of “doing it” was not equivalent to “getting it” – a necessary; but not a sufficient condition.

    Years ago, in the shops and sites I worked at, we actually spoke of a “craft attitude”. I’ll bet no one then could offer a definition and yet we all understood a common meaning. Someone spoken of as having a “craft attitude” had an expected level of skill; but also an implied level of … what? Je ne sais pas. But that intangible was as important – or more so – than the skill (and yet all bound up together). And, more importantly, how is this intangible transmitted? If it is only by the work itself, I guess we’re covered; but if there is more to it, then how? When we learned by the examples, good and bad, of our working partners and bench buddies, it was a different process. But now many of us ply our craft at solitary benches and our fellowship is digital; my understanding of your sincerity in pointing to this aspect of our craft is what keeps me coming back here (not some tip I learned 40 years ago). Thank you for this.

    Here’s two more quotes – hopefully to somehow add clarity to the mystery (because its clearly a mystery):

    “Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
    The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
    Although its light is wide and great,
    The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
    The whole moon and the entire sky
    Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.”

    “Those who see worldly life as an obstacle to Dharma
    see no Dharma in everyday actions.
    They have not yet discovered that
    there are no everyday actions outside of Dharma.”

  18. timothyvermillion says:

    When is the last time a musician got very good by just reading about it? You gotta do it and do it for so long that you hate it sometimes. You’ve got to practice boring rudiments and scales for seemingly no reason. The philosophy involved is: don’t listen to your inner voice telling you practicing sawing to a line or playing flamaques over and over is stupid . You can’t read your way into greatness. I’m not a good woodworker yet b/c I havent practiced my sawing rudiments and my chisel rudiments. I will be though.

  19. KampWood says:

    In teaching how to make cabinets I’ve found it’s hard to teach guessing.

  20. Sean Hughto says:

    So I’ve been thinking about this some. I take your post to mean you believe there is a place for some philosophy, but you like to keep it to a minimum. I mean the Anarchist’s Tool Chest had a good bit of philosophy contained in your conceptualizations of the meaning of “anarchy” in making and self-sufficiency and so on. For what it’s worth, I think the better woodworking books I’ve encountered that have strong philosophical bents are Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship (sometimes a bit redundant and overthought, but the core insights about risk and so forth are gems); Nakashima’s Soul of a Tree (being attuned to working with a living media and allowing oneself to be inspired by the directions the media itself can suggest); and Krenov’s Cabinetmaker books (lots of great philosophical stuff reflecting his approach and thoughts on the creative process interspersed with straightforward building and designing information).

  21. Chris, I’ve been anticipating this book for a long time. This post in particular connected with a parallel line of thought I’d like to bring up. In your house I’d not at all suggest a change to the text, but merely something of interest for some readers. I am a professional architect and hobbyist woodworker with a family.
    These ancient forms of furniture–borne out of necessity but settled gradually by long experience of the human hand and eye–are similar to vernacular architectural forms in many ways. There is a group of architects who study carefully the elements and patterns of vernacular buildings with the goal of bringing those most intuitively successful into the present. This may seem obvious but since most Western architecture is now driven by a desire to show the owner’s wealth and the architect’s sculptural skill often at the expense of real comfort, it is very necessary. I say this because it’s similar to some elements of what you’re doing with LAP, especially here. There is a great body of relevant theoretical work by architects such as Christopher Alexander to get oriented, but the main method of working toward a finished building or furniture is to simply build full-scale mockups and be with them. By examining them in real space and time I find the psychological science (testing hypotheses) to be very productive.
    The task is to examine whether a design element results in an increased feeling of “life” or “wholeness” in a person in real space (you). It’s not really whether it is novel or impressive, though there’s plenty of room for that. The idea of “wholeness” sounds fuzzy but it’s been shown to be rather consistent and objective in practice. With furniture we have these great examples to be with and react to. When building one’s own furniture the process of mocking up and testing (shape, color, pattern, etc) is much simpler than with buildings of course. The end result is that you typically really like the finished product made of expensive materials and costly time. I think there is a lot of common ground, in short. If you have any response to this I would be interested to hear it.
    I found an article that explored this process specifically in furniture that I’d like to share for those interested. It starts on page 5.

  22. “…write for an 8th grade audience….”
    The United States was built to its greatest height by people with an 8th grade (or less) education. I believe that most of what can be considered as negative aspects of our current society derive from a de-emphasis of people working with their hands. Our society has lost a great deal by eliminating the apprentice system and putting too much emphasis on “book learning”.

    James Madison once wrote: “philosophy is common sense with big words.”

    I look forward to “The Anarchist’s Design Book”.

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