Author Michael Pollan is famous for his treatises on food in American culture, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked. Recently I enjoyed one of his lesser-known books, in which he designs and builds a little “writing house” in his Connecticut backyard. A Place of My Own is about the allure of actual construction to someone with a desk job, the timeless tension between architect and builder, and the satisfaction of creating a space that fits you and you alone.
Pollan imbues the book with enough technical detail to keep this engineer intrigued, with a nice treatment of foundation theory and a sprinkle of structural drawings. Yet he keeps things accessible – after all, he had zero carpentry experience going into the project, just like most readers. His writing unearths great truths about how it feels to build one’s own house, such as these gems:
For building seemed to me to be one of the most tangible, and grounded, and factual things that human beings do – the closest we ever come to making something on the order of nature, something with the sheer, incontrovertible presence of a tree or a rock.
The irreversibility of an action taken in wood is how the carpenter comes by his patience and deliberation, his habit of pausing to mentally walk through all the consequences of any action.
Architectural plans look different in the cold, especially when you’re rocking stiffly from boot to boot on top of fossilized mud, dispatching neural messages to toes and fingertips that go unheeded, and struggling to interpret lines on a drawing that only seem more ambiguous the harder you stare at them.
Lacking insulation and plumbing, this “writing house” is not a habitable dwelling. Indeed, building an external home office, especially one with this level of craftsmanship, is a luxury few can afford. But Pollan never frames his project as an exercise in simple living, despite its superficial resemblance to a tiny house. It’s nothing more than the book’s title implies: a place of his own, a dream he realized with his own novice hands. You could do it, too.
Thanks to Caitlin Chapman for this wonderful book!