Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Virtues of Imperfection... or, Another great book

I've taken to reading during my lunch break when I'm at the shop. Lately, I've been reading Unto This Last by John Ruskin. It's a Penguin reprint, and it also contains passages from Stones of Venice and a few other things that he wrote. Anybody who's read even the slightest bit about Arts and Crafts furniture has almost certainly heard Ruskin mentioned once or twice.

Ruskin's sentences are long, and the content can be dense. But it's a treasure trove of wonderful philosophy that's surprisingly approachable. He details his points very well, has a clear love of craft, and faith in the ability of mankind to improve and evolve. There's a lot of inspiration to be found in his writing.

Ruskin sees great virtue in the effort to grow and improve, though the road to better craftsmanship is paved with work that is inherently imperfect. He writes that an emphasis on perfection must naturally lead to an emphasis on work that is performed at a low enough skill level that it can be done without flaws. And he goes further, saying that that sort of enforced dumbing down is, in essence, a form of mental slavery. Perfectionism taken in the other direction leads to examples like Leonardo da Vinci, whose obsession with perfection kept him from finishing many paintings, even though he worked on some of them for almost 10 years. Famous though he was, it seems that it was this tendency that kept Leonardo from being a more prolific painter.

The lesson to take away from all this: Don't be afraid to learn. Don't be afraid to grow. And certainly don't be afraid to make a few mistakes in your efforts to become a better woodworker. We're only human.

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