The book of short essays “Less is More” collected by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska, tackles a subject dear to my heart: Voluntary Simplicity, the act of voluntarily making your life simpler, less cluttered, more frugal and quite simply… simpler.
I don’t think the book does a very good job at it though. Firstly, a book packed full of words and ideas is far from simple. It is the big difference you learn in creative writing between writing about something boring in an interesting way and writing about something boring by writing boring. The first works, the second doesn’t.
Likewise, I don’t think you can write about simplicity by using complicated ideas.
To make maters worse the authors collected as many smart and well credentialed people as possible to write the essays. Each essay starts with the grand life achievements of the author: tediously long and complicated resumes about their PhDs, published works, organizations they belong to and all sorts of evidence that these people lead far from simple lives.
And who the F*%ck cares?? I bought the book to learn about simplicity not to be impressed by how many degrees the author has.
The book reeks of academic back slapping pomposity, full of overly cerebral people who clearly have a long way to go in simplicity.
When I read the essays I did not feel connected to the authors. Their writing was cold and stilted. They spoke of community and being connected to others with the same distance as if they were analyzing abstract ideas on the weather.
Pretty much every author (without knowing what others were writing) quoted Thoreau, which for me was another indication of the shallow middle class western bias they all had. I’ve read more original essays in college.
Having said this, I approached the book as a green builder in Brooklyn with the intention of learning something I could apply to our green contracting company.
As a green builder we are very into simplicity – simplicity of buying products, simplicity of materials, simplicity of not overbuilding – what ever we can do to make the green brownstone renovation a simpler more natural process.
I did come away with the Japanese concept of “Wabi-Sabi.” It was discussed in an essay by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, who coincidentally is the editor-in-chief of Natural Home (I read that in her bio!), which is a magazine I subscribe to.
Wabi-Sabi is the “ancient Japanese art of finding beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, rustic and primitive.”
THIS I can relate to!
The amount of times I have explained to clients that a beat up old floor is more beautiful than brand new planks from the store! And it not just the aesthetics of the floor or the wisdom of saving money – it is the spirit of the floor!
Wabi-Sabi is about loving the simple value of a home for its spiritual practicality. In fact, it’s grandeur very well could get in the way of it’s beauty and practicality.
Wabi-Sabi appreciates the value of imperfection – the natural shapes of nature for example – a broken stone hearth, an old beam cracking at the end, a floor bowing from time, the creak of stairs….these are things to be appreciated like two old lovers learn to adore each others’ wrinkles.
I get this feeling every time I walk into an old Brooklyn brownstone. I don’t see a gut to be torn out and replaced with luxury condo style finishes. I see an old lady in need of some hemming. Why in the world would you want to get rid of any of it??
Of course my clients have many answers why. And some I agree with – lead paint, toxic carpets, cracking walls, bad design (Feng Shui or lack of light and ventilation), inefficient insulation or windows….the list is long.
But the spirit of the house should be kept. Now I have a word for that: Wabi Sabi.
The author writes that Wabi-Sabi is making a comeback in the US as “a logical reaction to a society disgusted with its own excesses.” And this couldn’t be more true than in the building field.
All my employees came to Eco Brooklyn as refugees from other building companies that wasted building materials without regard. I get resumes weekly from construction workers begging for a job so they can stop feeling guilty about how much they are wasting at their current job.
The book “Less is More” may not be great but that one essay makes it completely worth it. It is a gem of wisdom that I will look further into.