Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bushwick, Brooklyn, Sept. 2007


An article in this week’s Newsweek addresses the latest trend in memoir-writing: the “year of” memoir, in which, for a year, the writer does something unusual. Recent books seem to involve actually not doing something. Or, more accurately, taking something away from modern life to see what it’s like to do without it.

A.J. Jacobs, in “The Year of Living Biblically,” avoids a lot of modern conveniences to live according to the restrictions imposed by the Bible. Barbara Kingsolver skirts the convenience of year-round supermarket produce to shop locally for seasonal food in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Judith Levine wrote “Not Buying It,” in which she doesn’t shop at all. Sara Bongiorni restricted her shopping to avoid Chinese goods in “A Year Without ‘Made in China.’”

I think the trend toward subtracting things from life is interesting. Americans have shown warring impulses on this topic: We seem to want simpler lives, and hence magazines such as “Real Simple” flourish, but we still buy more and more. We know what we’re doing is pointless, but we still do it.

I’ve long been a fan of simplification - not just in shopping, but in everything. I really think that’s where the key to happiness lies, in removing distractions that make us frantic and speedy. I’m not always successful at it in my own life, but I continue to work on it every day - not buying stuff, turning off the noise-making media, spending time doing things more slowly and purposefully.

This profusion of books reflects the same impulse in all of us. As Ron Hogan, a blogger who covers the publishing industry, tells Newsweek: “We’re such a hyperaffluent society, what else is left for us to do than take things away from our lives?”

And thereby find more.

8 comments:

Theresa said...

I struggle with keeping things simple. As much as I don't want to fall into the consumer trap and I want to teach my students not to either I sometimes feel that I desperatly desire things. Right now it is a flat screen monitor for my computer though the one I have is perfectly fine.

Reya Mellicker said...

Wonderful post, Steve. I love the way you make me think.

I don't think life is simple in any way, shape or form. The magazine "Real Simple" is a catalog for more stuff. It is definitely NOT about simplifying, but about cashing in on this newest American trend. The books, too, are ways to access the trend, though I have no doubt the people who wrote them learned something in the process.

I am a terrible consumer. I hate shopping, I don't own a car or my own house, I barely have enough stuff to fill the closet in my room. I looked at an apartment recently and realized it was way too big for me - I could never fill up that space with my few belongings.

But is my life simple? OMG my life is so complex! My thought processes are like a labyrinth, my inner workings, too - I'm talking physiology as well as psychology. My dreams? Oy vey ...

My life is way too complicated for stuff, too full to spend time shopping. My life is a big chaotic tapestry.

Simplicity? No No No No No!!!

(laughing)

Steve said...

Reya: You're definitely right about "Real Simple." It sells the idea of simplicity, but it's really just more stuff. It's complication disguised as simplicity.

But do you mean that you reject the ideal of simplicity? I agree life can be complicated, but I think a continuous process of evaluation and simplification, where possible, is really the way to deal with things.

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Excellent post! I think our yearning for more and more is the result of two things: social conditioning (we've constructed a "gotta have it" society"), and the need, conscious or not, to be distracted from OURSELVES. Ernest Becker, the brilliant philosopher, would even assert that we are doing it all to avoid having to deal with the fact that we are going to die - it's quite related to terror management

Merle Sneed said...

Steve, I have to confess to practicing selective simplification.

My retirement has removed the impulse to buy stuff because of the loss of income.

Like you, I have made it my habit to avoid the news coverage and talk radio. I don't need the stress of something I can't control anyway.

Gary said...

I like to think that I am keeping things simple but I also realize that I am a hearty consumer. If I want something, I buy it. This of course is only on one level. In most areas of my life I try to remind myself of the simple pleasures. The things that make me truly happy don't cost a thing. The are the simple things but also the most complicated in some ways. Boy, I talked myself into a corner here.

Anyway, you make a good point even if I don't.

alphabet soup said...

Couldn't agree more. Of course I would have to stop buying books and printed matter. Maybe I could turn to a life of crime and steal stuff??
Ms Soup

Steve said...

JDZS: I think that's absolutely true. It's death avoidance.

Merle: There's definitely a fine balance there. I want to stay informed, so I read the paper, but I can't stand the chattering on electronic media. And talk radio - forget it!

G: Well, we all have to buy SOME things. If you recognize the joy in simplicity, I think you're getting it!

Soup: I'm guessing a life of crime would lead to more complication, not less. :)

Theresa: Desiring things is inevitable. But giving in to the desire is something else entirely. That you have control over! I find that a lot of times I want something, but if I don't act on it, it goes away.