This New House

A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder

by Michael Pollan
Random House, 320 pp., $24.00

I seldom watch instructional television. Listening to someone pedantically explain landscape painting, or watching an earnest woodworker cobble together a Colonial-style night table, has never caught my fancy. Still, whenever I come across a show on “home improvement” I must admit I usually end up watching.

This is a narrowly conceived genre. A series of programs follows the construction of a new house, or the renovation of an old one. As the weeks go by, the viewer is introduced to the various steps in the process: foundations, framing, plumbing, plastering, cabinetwork, and so on. The host acts as a sort of tour guide, introducing the various tradesmen and artisans who in turn step forward and explain the intricacies of their craft.

I suspect that, like most viewers, I am drawn to these programs for several reasons. Like three quarters of all Americans, I live in a house, in my case an old house, and people who live in old houses are always fiddling with improvements, modifications, and repairs. (This accounts for the impressive fact that approximately a third of the $182 billion that was spent on residential construction in the United States in 1990 was spent on renovations.) Like many other people, I occasionally do the work myself, and the programs are a useful source of information, not only about craftsmanship and technique but also about the unusual variety of new materials and new tools now available. Not that I rush out and buy the latest electronic level or pneumatic nailing gun, but it’s comforting to know that they exist should I ever get around to repairing the creaky tread on the staircase.

Despite their documentary character, however, these programs don’t necessarily reflect the real world of house building. For example, I have never seen a program that shows the homeowners idly standing around waiting for the absent contractor or plumber. The tradesmen on these shows are never surly or incompetent—they are cheerful, skilled, and eloquent. They never make mistakes. There are no delays. No one over-charges, or quibbles about a bill. Everyone is enthusiastic, especially the homeowners. The grouchiness that inevitably befalls anyone who is building a house, or undertaking an extensive renovation, never touches these cheerful souls. They never worry that they are spending too much money, or doing the wrong thing, or having the wrong thing done to them. This make-believe is a distinct attraction of these programs. When I was a boy, someone once gave me a stack of back issues of Popular Mechanics. I rarely built anything that was illustrated in the magazines, but I spentmany pleasant hours poring over their pages. The home improvement television shows are like that: an escape.

The two programs I have watched most frequently are This Old House and Hometime. This Old House originates in New England, and is clearly aimed at an upper-middle-class audience. You can tell this from the expensive materials its builders use and their disarmingly simple but obviously equally expensive craftsmanship. These handsome houses are…

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