A deeper look at the LEGO building experience

Have you ever contemplated LEGO as a profound life experience? For the intellectuals out there, you can pick up a copy of Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon‘s recent book Manhood for Amateurs where you’ll find an essay dedicated to a stimulating discussion of the author’s experiences with LEGO and how they have progressed through various stages of evolution.

Adult fan of LEGO and college professor Roy T. Cook has read the essay and gave us an academic summary below:

In “To The LEGOland Station”, the seventh essay in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (2009, Harper Collins), Michael Chabon briefly relates his own experiences with LEGO bricks: First, there was the “limited repertoire of shapes and the absolute, even cruel, set of axioms that governed they could and couldn’t be arranged” (p. 53) that characterized his own childhood exposure to LEGO. Second are the experiences he had building more contemporary sets – in particular, licensed sets – with his children, an experience he describes as having “far more in common with puzzle-solving, a process of moving incrementally toward an ideal, pre-established, and above all, a provided solution.” (p. 55) Apparently viewing this emphasis on building official models as depicted on the box-front as the sole credo of the ‘new’ LEGO, Chabon reports that he “resented the authoritarian nature of the new LEGO.” (p. 55). The third stage of his evolution is when he observes his children (eventually) disassembling their official sets and recombining them, resulting in models of impressive complexity and creativity. Unfortunately, Chabon characterizes this final, creative revolution as a rebellion, on the part of his children, against the “realism” and “quirks and limitations” of the LEGO system.” (p. 56), instead of recognizing that the passage from building-as-rote-instruction to building-as-original-creation is a transition that was, and is, intended, encouraged, and accounted for in the design of the system by LEGO all along. Thus, Chabon mistakenly characterizes his children’s passage through these stages as a sort of transgressive rejection of LEGO’s “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual” (p. 55).

You can download Roy’s full synopsis here.

1 comment on “A deeper look at the LEGO building experience

  1. Aethon

    Having read both Chabon and Cook’s essays, I would suggest that Cook presents a serious misreading of Chabon’s work. In tracing the changed aesthetic in LEGO creations from his own childhood to that of his children, Chabon draws attention to the consequent shift from the modernist neutrality of the product’s early years towards a new aesthetic – that of “the pastiche that destroys its sources at the same time that it makes use of and reinvents them”(p.57). Rather than characterizing this creative stage, as Cook suggests, as a ‘transgressive rejection’ of the structure or order imposed by an instruction manual, Chabon celebrates the expansion of LEGO to include the reproduction of more complex and variegated forms, writing that these new materials provide opportunity to “make something new, something no one has ever seen or imagined before.”(p.57) Cook’s essay unfortunately overlooks this conclusion, focusing instead on earlier observations made by Chabon in his passage towards a characteristic reversal and reflexive moment of narrative anagnorisis. Like Cook, I would encourage readers to begin with Chabon’s essay itself, hopefully with opinions unbiased by the incomplete reading outlined in Cook’s essay.

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