When I recently visited my Mom, she mentioned she’d like me to sharpen her kitchen knives while I was with her, and I never ended up doing it (sorry Mom! 😞). Maybe because of that, and the fact that I’ve never really sharpened knives before (despite being a huge fan of a good kitchen knives), this essay from Scope of Work on the technical a philosophical aspects of knife sharpening caught my eye.
The ultimate takeaway from the piece, aside from the very interesting aspect of how people treat knife sharpening in vastly different ways, is that sharpening a knife is really about shaping a tool and making it our own. It’s about making the tool work for the individual who needs it in a very personal way.
Knife sharpening, then, is a quiet, entirely private way of actively participating in the creation of the world we inhabit. A knife with good kireaji will both react and reply when you pass it over a whetstone. Such knives are made to be sharpened, to be modified by their users. There’s a sense in which they come to us unfinished, because we have not yet changed them – and they invite us to change our world in ways that only we will really know.
Cal Newport recently wrote about a similar thing (I think), specifically the beauty of a bespoke computer called the Mythic which was made to be a joy to look at and use for three simple writing tasks. Again, the theme being that the tool (the computer) was modified (one could say, sharpened) to fit a very specific task amazingly well.
In Keegan’s construction we find an alternative understanding of work, built now on beauty, craftsmanship, and focus. Replacing everyone’s MacBook with custom-carved hardwood, of course, is not enough on its own to transform how we think about out jobs, as these issues have deeper roots. But the Mythic is a useful reminder that the rhythms of our professional lives are not pre-ordained. We craft the world in which we work, even if we don’t realize it.
This has gotten me thinking about my own (mostly digital) tools that I use everyday. Customizing or modifying the tools we use in our craft is not simply a matter of maintenance (like sharpening a dull blade or installing the latest update).
Our modifications (or lack their of) create our own daily experience.