Work Within Reach

Many of my posts here are generated by things that Alan Jacobs has posted about. One reason for this is that he posts a lot (despite having resolved, many times, to quit) and another is that his blog doesn’t have a Comments section, so if I want to respond, I have to do so here.

There’s also something about the way Jacobs writes that prompts reflection. I think his great strength as a writer (and probably as a teacher) is his ability to pull together ideas from many different sources and put them side by side. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t require a photographic memory. He’s just a very careful reader. Here’s what a page looks like after he’s read it:

I always come away from a Jacobs post or book itching to read the authors he writes about. He truly does have a gift for presenting their ideas clearly.

In one recent post, Jacobs described his “great project”/”glorious endeavor” (somewhat tongue in cheek): a college Where the New Liberal Arts Meets the Old. One of his foundational courses would be the Care of Plants and Animals, an idea he cheerfully stole from Auden’s “daydream College for Bards.” Here’s Auden’s full description:

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

From Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, an excellent book. I found this passage online here.

Number 5, which I put in bold, would also be a feature of Jacobs’ Cassiodorus College. I’m struck by this emphasis on gardening as a fundamental part of a good education, especially when paired with Wendell Berry’s essay on the dead-end worldview that is Global-Thinking. The only way to “make ecological good sense,” as he puts it, is to focus on what’s in front of you:

The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in, and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.

“Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” originally published in the Atlantic

Besides the connection to Good Work (a new zine that you should subscribe to), I think this passage is important because Berry and Auden both emphasize working with one’s hands on things that are literally within reach. What benefit does gardening have to education and building a culture? I could rope in Matthew Crawford and Robert Farrar Capon here, but I’m worried this post is getting too dense as it is, so I’ll summarize two ways that manual labor can educate a person:

  1. Using your hands makes you aware of your own limits, both physically and in terms of your ability. A bell pepper exists independently from you. It’s easy to forget that kind of thing when you spend all day in a classroom.
  2. Gardening and caring for animals makes you aware, in a palpable sense, of time. You can’t grow a tomato in an instant. If you did, it wouldn’t be a tomato. A yearling calf is a year old (roughly). Again, it’s easy to forget, when you sit around a table with other brainiacs, that good work can’t be accomplished in an instant.

The Art of Observation

Photographer Elliott Erwin once said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place … I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” This quote is a mantra for photographer Alan Burles, who is constantly on the lookout for the odd in the everyday.

Above: Burles’s image of the “Welly Wanging Competition” in the village of Clifford, Herefordshire. Below: A serendipitous row of vans.

Writer Craig Mod writes here about the importance of walking—it’s his work, he says. He is a photographer as well as a writer, and carries all of his photography (and videography) equipment with him:

Depending on the day, I’ll walk anywhere from twelve to forty-five kilometers, carrying twelve kilos of photography and video equipment. I’ll interview several people each day, take portraits, photograph what “asks” to be photographed, sometimes record binaural audio, sometimes record video. I then arrive at the inn or hotel and settle in for some four to six hours of work / synthesis.

Both of these photographers write as if the photos are there, waiting to be found by the patient cameraman. The way they speak of their craft reminds me of Brendan O’Donnell’s excellent essay in the inaugural issue of my new zine Good Work:

The camera searches out land and buildings and trees beneath various kinds of weather. Structures groaning beneath the weight of use or neglect. People in various states of ignorance of the lens. Rights-of-way: railroads, rivers, roads; the vehicles upon them. That 50mm lens: if something is too far away, I can’t zoom in; I must walk or climb or drive closer. Sometimes I stay put and frame instead a faraway subject, but trains and rainsqualls will also obligingly close the distance. When the truck door is flung open, the spontaneity and urgency of the moment dictates that I bang the shutter a bunch of times in search of the thing I’ve seen. If time does not press on me, I hold the instrument at my chest, taking things in without technical mediation, and when I finally hit the shutter, I’ve made a more deliberate decision about what the tool sees. How the curve of that dirt road imitates the saddle in the hills above it. How the shadows cast from the poplars obliterate the detail in the wheat field beside them. How the low ceiling in the barroom hangs heavy over the shoulders of the man brooding over his drink.

Sign up for Good Work here.

(HT to Alan Jacobs’s newsletter for both linked articles above.)


Most scholarship is also not going to live forever. Is it therefore not worth doing? I wouldn’t say so. It’s worth it to maintain gardens and repair buildings and restore artworks. No one’s work lives forever on its own. It stays alive because someone keeps it so. Here again, greatness requires humility: other people’s. The task of thinking is worthwhile even if your thoughts prove to be of limited usefulness. The tasks of reading, of appreciation, of interpretation, are worthwhile, even if next year there is a new essay that supersedes yours, or a new book. If we have chosen to live our lives this way, it is because something about it strikes us as the best way we can spend our time.

B. D. McClay

Via Ayjay, in a post, as always, worth reading: