In his new book, “Craft: An American History” Glenn Adamson chronicles how “makers” and “making,” long before they became buzz words, contributed to the story of our country, from Jamestown until today. This is Adamson’s fourth book. He was previously the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and has held appointments at the Yale Center for British Art and at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The Boston-area native lives in the Hudson Valley.
BOOKS: What have you been reading?
ADAMSON: James Meek’s “To Calais, in Ordinary Time.” It’s set in the Middle Ages during the plague, and is a weird experiment of a novel. He did a great deal of linguistic research and came up with a way of having the characters sound persuasively medieval. I love writers who put you back in place and time. E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” is one of my favorites of all time.
BOOKS: What are some of your other favorite historical novels?
ADAMSON: I love fiction that is based on research but that transforms the research into something human and touches you imaginatively and emotionally, such as Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” You really get a sense that he absolutely knows that world. Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” is another great example. The protagonist ends up working on the ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay” is another one.
BOOKS: What history books have you been reading?
ADAMSON: A book I would super, super recommend is “Paradise Now” by Chris Jennings about American utopian communities, such as the Shakers. Some of these groups thought the world was about to end. What do you do when you think you only have two years left? It’s compulsively readable. I read another that I thought was super while I was working on my own book, “City of Dreams,” by Tyler Anbinder, which is the history of American immigration. I’ve done a couple of biographical projects recently, so I have been influenced by good biography. I read Nancy Princenthal’s of the painter Agnes Martin, which is a great artist biography. I love Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys. Biography is this halfway point between fact and imagination because you are trying to climb into someone’s head.
BOOKS: What other books that you read to research your own book would you recommend?
ADAMSON: “Craeft” by Alexander Langlands, which is about British craft history. He’s one of these hands-on historians. He’s done thatching, wickerwork, and all these agriculturally oriented crafts. An older book that was very influential for me is “The Subversive Stitch” by Rozsika Parker, which is a history of needlework but with a feminist way of going at that topic. It’s trying to get into the heads of these women who left behind these samplers.
BOOKS: Do you have a favorite chair to read in?
ADAMSON: This sounds too good to be true. I have a chair made by a guy named Art Carpenter, who was one of the great craft people of the California counterculture. He built a series of chairs called the Wishbone chairs. When I was in graduate school at Yale I was researching him. One of the curators at the Yale Art Gallery ran across two of his chairs in an antiques mall. She bought two, one for the museum and sold the other to me for $500.
BOOKS: How many books do you own?
ADAMSON: A lot, even though I dramatically cull them regularly. They always build back up. My partner and I were laughing because during the pandemic we’ve had a book arrive almost every day. We organize them by color: blue ones there, yellow ones there, and pink ones there. I actually find it easier to find things now.
BOOKS: Do you have a prize possession?
ADAMSON: I have a 19th-century edition of John Ruskin’s “The Stones of Venice.” He is known as a great art critic but he was extremely important for craft history. He wrote about Venice’s architecture, which became influential for William Morris, the father of the Arts and Craft Movement in England, which had a big effect here. A lot of roads lead back to Ruskin. I’m not religious but that’s as close as I have to a Bible.