Our world is largely digital and it moves fast. There is a recent crop of books on the beauty and power of slowing down and working with one’s hands. One of these is Slow Tech by the British archaeologist and historian Peter Ginn. “Forge-Carve-Weave-Mould-Ignite” emblazon the cover as a sampling of the fundamental technologies he explores. The book is structured around materials, with sections devoted to Fire, Earth, Wood, Stone, and Water. Most of the projects are given 2-4 heavily illustrated pages. These mini-chapters include “The art of smithing,” “Smelting,” “Make a Coil Pot,” “Wattle and Daub,” “Make a loom and weave cloth,” “Distil scented oil,” and “Steam-powered toy boat.” I have put none of these projects to the test for clarity of explanation or efficacy of instruction, but browsing the book is a pleasure in its own right. It makes one hungry to do something with one’s hands.
This book on working with the hands was born directly of the digital world. The Australian John Plant became a YouTube star with his Primitive Technology channel, which has 10 million subscribers and an average of 5 million views per video. Unlike Slow Tech it is geared specifically to wilderness survival with the most primitive of tools. Chapters are structured around neither technologies (forge, carve, weave) nor materials (fire, earth, wood), but around the necessities of life: Heat, Hunt, Clothing, Shelter, and Basic and Advanced Toolkits. Illustrations include both drawings and photographs. Having watched a handful of Plant’s videos, I found it hard to see them reduced to a handful of photographs. The book is a smaller format than Slow Tech and not as lavishly illustrated. But it remains a fascinating window onto the rudiments of turning just about nothing into the minimal tools and materials necessary to survive in the wilderness.
Despite an unhealthy proliferation of subtitles, this is a charming little book on the pleasures of whittling. One of the oldest forms of self-amusement with the hands, whittling requires nothing but a stick and a sharp knife. The book begins with a guide to swiss army knives, both a brief historical overview and selection of knife exotica (the Swiss Champ XAVT has 118 implements), and a guide to choosing a more practical knife for one’s own use. The rest of the book consists of projects to be carved from sticks and twigs: crochet hooks, alligators, hens, jewelry trees, and bristly-tailed squirrels. It’s a practical little guide, with none of the deep romanticism of the other two books. They are built on a yearning for what is fundamental in human life. This teaches you how to make a chicken from a branch. It is diverting and fun and probably a great occasional alternative to Netflix.