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One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski

May 22, 2012

One Good Turn: a Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw tells the story of the development of the screwdriver. While this sounds ridiculous and boring to some, it sound fascinating to others (such as myself. Look forward to my review of The Dirt on Clean, a history of bathing in Western cultures!). Rybczynski’s book stems from an article he wrote when he was asked to write about the most important and useful tool invented in the last 1000 years, and he came up with the screwdriver.

Although there are some interesting anecdotes involved in the history of the screwdriver, the way that the answer to the question “what is the most useful tool of the last millenium?” became “the screwdriver” tells us exactly how compelling a book this will be. Rybczynski does not analyze dozens of tools, coming up with the screwdriver because of it’s particular uses. Rather, he eliminates all the other tools, as they had rudimentary forms before the last millenium, and settles on the screwdriver because he has no other option.

The rest of the book plays out as a desperate attempt to fill up an entire book’s worth of information about the screwdriver; yet, it’s fairly clear that there isn’t a book’s worth of information there. It includes dozens of pages – among a scant 176 – of information about Rybczynski’s process. This is not the sort of narration of research process that informs the subject, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, giving it stakes and urgency. It just reads as yammering and page filling.

Skip One Good Turn if you find this type of micro-history book interesting; only read it if you are really, truly, deeply interested in finding all the information you can about the screwdriver.

Rebecca is about 20 reviews behind her reading. Look forward to lots of reviews, and check out Cannonball Read IV for more reviews from the Cannonball Read.


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