Friday, April 17, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...) House by Tracy Kidder

House by Tracy Kidder is probably the best book that will ever be written about the building of a house. Not "building" a house as in a how-to-do-it guide, but "the building" of a house as a process of personalities, philosophies, histories, trends, class status, power, and economics. Mostly, personalities. As a contractor I read it with a sense of recognition and, I admit, occasional boredom because to some degree it was like reading about my day at work. Jim, the contractor in this project, seemed like a clone of my own personality - the drive for quality, the disdain for haggling, the over-sensitivity to the slightest insults of class warfare that seem to come with the job. I recognized all the carpenters in the crew - Vietnam vets, college grads, the likable kid clawing his way out of poverty, the equally likable one rejecting his father's bourgeois life, the dyslexic, the fuckup, the perfectionist, the speedster - mix and match - and became very fond of them. But Tracy Kidder brought so much more than just the carpenters' points of view. He followed the thoughts and actions of Bill Rawn, the architect, who I came to admire. And Kidder described equally the drama of the house-building from the clients' point of view. I never warmed to Jonathan Souweine, the attorney husband, as he used his advantages and self-justifications to beat down the price, completely oblivious of the demoralizing effect it had on the workers. Meanwhile I liked Judith, Jonathan's wife.

Page after page, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, such as when Tracy Kidder talks about "rectitude" in carpentry: "Reverence for builders of the post-and-beam tradition arises from the examples of sturdy work they left behind, but then again it's the sturdy work that survives. The examples of high craftsmanship, ones that have stood for centuries, aren't distinguished by the framing technique so much as by the care with which builders applied it. Those old houses are distinguished, as Jim would say, by the rectitude of their carpenters. And although modern materials, such as concrete and plywood, as well as scientific data about the strengths of woods and structural arrangements, have made it easier to build a durable frame today than formerly, there's still room for rectitude in framing."

There's rectitude in writing, too, and Kidder's got it. The fact that I reacted so strongly to each of the characters in this project shows how well Tracy Kidder described them. I'm not an objective reviewer here; I'm somebody who has lived through most of the scenes that he portrays. As I've said in Clear Heart, a house is alive - and House, the book, is about the birth of one particular house, a birth filled with drama, conflict, history and hard work.


  1. Sounds like a good read. Ever come across "The Walls Around Us" by David Owen? It has been quite a few years, and maybe I would have a different impression now, but when I read it 15 years I thought it was an interesting meditation on the practicalities of home improvement and living with a well-seasoned house.

    David E.

  2. I can see why you'd be interested in "living with a well-seasoned house." Thanks for the suggestion. I've just ordered it for the next bookmobile visit. I hope the recent winds have been gentle on your place.