A Quiet Book Club in Unquiet Times

A Quiet Book Club in Unquiet Times

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“Students are forever running to libraries to get various books – on peasant art, Scandinavian modern, Shaker, Colonial, Indian – one this and one that. They fill their heads with all these images, and then frantically try to come up with something of their own. As though you put these ingredients in a kettle, add water, stir, and cook for two hours. What do you get? Pottage. Pea soup.

It’s a losing battle. And so exhausting. Stay out of it. It took me a long time to realize this, and accept my unoriginal self. Try to find the sort of people for whom there is another originality – that of the quiet object in unquiet times.”

James Krenov, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” p.45

It’s been nearly two years since we first announced my biography of James Krenov, and more than that since I began my research. I had initially hoped to keep a regular blogging practice up through the book’s writing – it turned out that I had a lot to learn. Nearly every week since that time two years ago, I’ve learned some new facet of Krenov’s life, some new angle to his approach, a new anecdote or, in some cases, entire paths and works of his that I (and the internet, his family or his close friends) had never known about. The number of revelations I had, even about Krenov’s basic biographical details or work, made me wary of putting anything down in writing that I wasn’t ready to share – you don’t know what you don’t know.

Now, with my manuscript about 80 percent done, and nearly every stone upturned, I’ve emerged with an entirely different and more total image of Krenov, as an individual, a philosopher and a craftsperson. This past week I hit a milestone in my writing – I finished my chapter writing about Jim’s first woodworking book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” which was a huge moment of inflection in his career. Luckily for me and my writing, the book garnered him enough attention and publicity that I’ve officially entered a phase of his life where documentation and detail is no longer hard-won – writing the last half-dozen chapters of his life is more about noise reduction and separating the wheat from the chaff.

Krenov was already 56 years old when “Notebook” was published (though he started writing it a decade earlier). He shared little of his own biographic details – like so much of Krenov’s advice to students, his anecdotes and stories are presented almost as fables, or points along a story arc or in service of a conclusion, not a self-examination or real background. He writes a detailed autobiographic summary at the back of “Notebook,” but he omits so much (I now know!). He never discussed (in any length) his context, that of the students, colleagues, competitors and critics he came up around in Stockholm for 15 years. Perhaps a nod to Carl Malmsten, a few vague acknowledgements in the front matter of the book. But he had been a translator, boatbuilder, travel writer, factory worker, so much more in his youth, and as a craftsperson he interacted with a wide swath of trends and tastemakers, old and new – and he discussed very little of this publicly, though it was deeply formative in his own trajectory.

There is a context to Krenov’s writing –  one that goes much deeper than the already nuanced and sensitive philosophy he expressed in his books. I just read through “Notebook” again over the past week, and with all that I know now, after interviewing people around the globe and sifting through thousands of pages of photos, letters, newspaper archives and public documents, the book’s subtleties and Krenov’s implicit understandings and influences are much richer. My own reflections, conclusions and musings I take away from reading the book are much deeper and more rewarding as well.

And a biography is not the place to write a detailed analysis of the book – that could easily be its own tome, as nearly each paragraph’s individual implications are worth a dissection (to my eye). And he went on to write four more books on the subject. I hope that many who might be interested in this biography might have read his books already – but should I count on that? And, while I think my biography will offer up the fruits of my discoveries for my readers, would they have come to similar conclusions and interpretations?

So, with so many of us in our homes, I thought I’d propose an idea, one I’ve discussed with a few fellow graduates of Jim’s school in recent weeks – a kind of book club, where we can discuss his books and work and I can share this rich new understanding and insight I have into Krenov’s writings and life.

So – a week from today, I’ll be writing my own impressions and analysis of the first section of Krenov’s first book, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” and pulling quotes or passages that I find relevant, interesting or though-provoking. Specifically, I’ll be looking at the front matter of the book (the acknowledgements, openings quotes and first essay) up to page 23.

I’d also like to include you all in this, in discussion and in my write-up next week – so, over the course of this next week, give the book a read up to page 23, make some notes or come up with a question or two you might have about the work, photography or philosophy, and post them in the comments of this post, down below. I’ll be tending to the comments over the next week, to react to or answer simpler questions, but the more complex impressions, perspectives or questions will make up a section of my own post next week. I hope you all will also interact with each other in the comments, too. If enough people are interested, I’ll look into hosting an online chatroom or live discussion, where we might have an easier time going back and forth in a more focused or direct manner.

If you don’t have a copy of the book, you can certainly order one to join in the discussion (it’s worth having a copy around, and the book is still available to order online), but the Internet Archive has also set up a digital library online during this pandemic to get people access to reading material while their libraries are closed. The first edition of Krenov’s book is hosted there, and you can “borrow” the book just as you would from a library (though you will have to make an account to do so): here’s the link. That’s the first edition version of the book, from Van Nostrad Reinhold, which is what I’ll be reading – the language and photos didn’t change in subsequent publications, but there were introductions and forewords in future editions that we won’t be discussing here.

It’s less than an hour’s read, and I’ll continue to work through the rest of the book in the upcoming weeks, provided there is an interest. There’s a good reason this book was so influential at the time – and I think many of the quotes, like the one I opened this post with, remain relevant and worth discussing in any creative practice or craft. Every time I read back through it, I find more to think about – and I suspect you will, too. I hope my insights into the book will also demonstrate that the work of this biography is much more than a service to Jim’s legacy – I think an understanding of Krenov’s life and its contextual environments informs a deeper understanding of craft and creative practice through the 20th century. It also provides a lot of material from which you might glean a better understanding of your own position and practice as a craftsperson or consumer.

— Brendan Gaffney

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“Old Jim” (as he called himself in later years) reading a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Wind, Sand and Stars” to his students at The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program (now The Krenov School). Photo by David Welter.


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