The best books about people who make things for a living

Alanna Cant Author Of The Value of Aesthetics: Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture
By Alanna Cant

Who am I?

I am a Canadian social anthropologist living in England, and my research is about material culture and heritage in Mexico. I have always been fascinated by the ways that people make their cultures through objects, food, and space; this almost certainly started with my mum who is always making something stitched, knitted, savoury, or sweet, often all at the same time. I hope that you enjoy the books on my list – I chose them as they each have something important to teach us about how our consumption of things affects those who make them, often in profound ways.

I wrote...

The Value of Aesthetics: Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture

By Alanna Cant,

Book cover of The Value of Aesthetics: Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture

What is my book about?

In The Value of Aesthetics, I explore the work of Oaxacan woodcarvers, whose craft began in the mid-twentieth century and has always been done for the commercial market. One family has become the most critically and economically successful, surpassing their neighbors who all depend on this work for their livelihoods. I link the dominance of this family to their ability to produce a new aesthetic that appeals to three key “economies of culture”: the tourist market for souvenirs, the Mexican market for traditional crafts, and the international market for indigenous art. My book shows how artisans’ aesthetic practices make and redefine social and political relationships, and that aesthetic change repackages artisans’ everyday lives into commodified objects in Oaxaca – and everywhere else in the world. 

The books I picked & why

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Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market

By William Warner Wood,

Book cover of Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market

Why this book?

Bill Wood’s engaging and accessible book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in travelling to Mexico or Mexican arts and crafts. Based on research with Zapotec weavers from Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Made in Mexico shows how it is impossible to understand how and why such items are made today without also knowing about the ways that Oaxaca and Zapotec people are marketed as part of an industry that sells authenticity and “Zapotecness.” Through clear analysis of the marketing of Oaxaca as a tourism destination and the making and marketing of Zapotec textiles as indigenous art and artifacts in both Mexico and the United States, Made in Mexico shows how Mexican craftworks today are very much global cultural commodities.  

Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art

By Fred R. Myers,

Book cover of Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art

Why this book?

I love this book because it combines an account of the historical development of the market for acrylic paintings by Pintupi Aboriginal Australian artists with a critical analysis of the ways that contemporary art markets create the idea of the ‘Aboriginal artist’ in the first place. Because Myers had already conducted research on Pintupi culture, rituals, and personhood before he came to write this book, he is able to fully explore the aesthetic and cosmological processes that underpin the actual practices of painting that his research participants use in their work.

By also investigating how dealers, museum curators, and collectors in Australian and international Aboriginal art worlds view and value Pintupi painters and their works, Myers shows very clearly the changes in meaning and value that take place when indigenous material culture circulates as artistic and ethnic commodities in national and international markets.

Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad

By Rebecca Prentice,

Book cover of Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad

Why this book?

In Thiefing a Chance, Rebecca Prentice shows us what life is like for women who make clothing in a factory in Trinidad – a livelihood shared by more than 75 million people worldwide, most of them in the Global South. I recommend this book because although Prentice discusses the ways that late-capitalism and neoliberal structural reforms have produced the difficult economic and working conditions that her research participants must cope with, she also shows how the women are not passive subjects in these processes. She documents how they take every opportunity on the factory floor to informally gain skills and to make ‘illicit’ garments out of spare materials, which they can sell outside of work.

However, Prentice resists the temptation to analyze these practices as ‘social resistance,’ and instead shows how such informal practices actually encourage these women to embrace neoliberal identities of competitive, enterprising individuals.

Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate

By Susan J. Terrio,

Book cover of Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate

Why this book?

Like the other works on my list, Susan Terrio’s book considers how globalization transforms the production, meanings and markets for goods, and the lives of those who make them. Terrio considers how artisanal chocolate makers in Paris and the Bayonne area worked to carve out a high-value market niche for themselves by re-educating the public about the quality and prestige of French handmade chocolates. She documents how they managed to succeed in this project by borrowing terminology and practices from wine connoisseurship, and by linking their handmade chocolate to French identity. I love this book because it provides insights into how our own ideas about taste, quality, and enjoyment are deeply connected to economics, politics, policy, and identity – and because it’s about chocolate, of course! 

Pumpkin Soup: A Picture Book

By Helen Cooper,

Book cover of Pumpkin Soup: A Picture Book

Why this book?

This book is highly recommended by myself and my small son, Adam. Pumpkin Soup captures something essential about making things for a living that is not often discussed in more academic texts: how difficult it can be to collaborate with others. The book tells the story of a squirrel, a cat, and a duck who make pumpkin soup together every night. All goes well until Duck decides he wants to do things his way, and a loud and angry argument ensues! The book does not end with a moral for small children about cooperation, but something altogether more ethnographic and familiar to those who work with others – another argument!  

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