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One Good Turn

A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

By Jane Maduram

T echnically, I agree that one shouldn’t pick a book by its cover. There are times, however, when the cover and the book are exceptionally well matched and the art on the cover reflects -- intentionally or not -- the writing within. This is one of those books. The tastefully glossy cover is framed by a tastefully rusted screwdriver and screw, between which the text (in a tasteful font) is placed. The book (tastefully) demands to be placed on a coffee table.

Which is, after all, where it’d probably do the most good. The book, while not by any means dull, is not quite gripping either. It is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of cocktail conversation: intelligent to the point of politeness, but no more. The writing style, consisting of short vignettes of history sandwiched between the author’s search for a more ancient screwdriver, complements this ambience.

Admittedly, screwdrivers is not a topic which generally inspires passion, though the author does wax rhapsodic for a sentence or two on the virtues of a Robertson (as supposed to Phillips) screwdriver: “The square-headed screwdriver sits snugly in the socket: you can shake a Robertson screwdriver, and the screw on the end will not fall off; drive a Robertson screw with a power drill, and the fully set screw simply stops the drill dead; no matter how old, rusty, or painted over, a Robertson screw can always be unscrewed. The ‘biggest little invention of the twentieth century’? Why not.”

There’s little reason why a book like this should be in existence; it is, after all, merely an extension of a New York Times commissioned article on the ‘best tool of the millennium.’

If one must read about screwdrivers and screws, however, this is definitely the correct book to get. Witold Rybczynski, the book’s author and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, built his house by himself and thus establishes himself quite concretely as an authority in tools and their uses.

While the book doesn’t bother with justifying the importance of the screwdriver, Mr. Rybczynski moves quite fluidly from source to source while chronicling the evolution and earliest sightings of the screwdriver. He comes across as being quite knowledgeable of the historical as well as practical background of his tools and integrates his citations quite nicely. In between, he inserts interesting bits of philosophy: “Hand tools are true extensions of the human body, for they have evolved over centuries of trial and error. Power tools are more convenient, of course, but they lack precisely that sense of refinement.”

At other times, he makes sublime comments on the nature of invention, such as when he describes the evolution of the buttonhole: “There was no scientific or technical breakthrough ... yet the leap of imagination that this deceptively simple device required is impressive. Try to describe in words the odd flick-and-twist motion as you button and unbutton and you realize just how complicated it is.” Another time, the author quotes an old craftsman as to the ultimate complement: “It was a pleasure to see him handle a tool of any kind, but he was quite splendid with an eighteen-inch file.” These intriguing gems of unexpected interest are few and far between, however, and hidden between lists and quotations.

Overall, the book is a stroll from toolbox to ancient library as it shares anecdotes and dispenses cursory facts. While the writing is aesthetically pleasing and the facts are mildly interesting, the overall effect is that of a bland tour guide or a forgettable museum. This may, of course, be a satisfactorily lazy way to spend a summer Sunday after picking the book off a coffee table, but it decidedly does not justify the time it takes out of a problem set filled weekend.