Boring School Work
Response to Scott Russell Sanders’ “The Inheritance of Tools” The Best American Essays, 3rd ed., 2001.
The Inheritance of Tools uses carpentry as the centerpiece of a reflection on the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. It violates conventional chronology, relying on memory as its central organizational theme. The tools provide only the point of departure to discuss deep emotional issues of family.
While it is a bit “Garrison Keillor” for my taste, this essay effectively uses the “ideas in things” to convey the lessons passed from generation through generation. Beginning with a banged thumb as a mnemonic to note the passing of his father, Sanders quickly moves to explore the relationship of the acquisition of skills to growing up. Carpentry is a rite of passage, where a child learns to construct something correctly. It’s the learning process, rather than the tools themselves that are the central theme of the essay.
Overall, the piece seemed a bit like lightweight Sunday Supplement fluff, were we are warmed and reinforced with traditional American ideas. It’s important to construct things carefully. It’s the skills, not the tools that are important. Skills move from a rough, untutored state into a world of right angled perfection. Parenting is an apprenticeship where we pass on our skills to the next generation. A coy tale of a gerbil trapped in a wall provides the only counterpoint, and caution that it is important to always consider the human beings involved more important than the structures we construct.
Yawn. Structurally, the essay is interesting, but the values are as stiff as a cardboard cut-out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Life is infinitely more complex than this piece implies. The tools become more beat-up as time goes by, but the skills remain true. Gosh, doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Not me. My father apprenticed as a carpenter, growing up. His father was an alcoholic; he didn’t leave him any tools, he pointed a gun in his face. My father made his own tools, and his angles were never perfect. Neither are mine.