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Saturday, October 2, 2021

What Constitutes 'Simplicity'?

Misleading minimalist photograph from our front porch

Recently I read an article in the New Yorker magazine about minimalism as it relates to living spaces ["Simple Plans," by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker, February 3, 2020], in which the author describes a video featuring a $60M mansion as "a stark, blank, monochromatic palace...." Readers are not informed of the square footage of the mansion, but I'm guessing the effect was as much in its size as in its minimal furnishings. I would be more impressed by a "minimalist" lifestyle if the homeowners had built themselves a one-room cabin by hand.


The Artist and I don’t live with bare walls and have no desire to do so. Walls, in our life, are for displaying art and for accommodating bookshelves. Besides paintings, prints, and books, we have our other little béguins matériels, if I may use that phrase to indicate things we fall for and impulsively must have but don’t need at all. For me, it’s bed linens, kitchen linens, specialty cookware, and what the Artist calls “kitten dishes.” For him, it’s boats (all kinds), leather bags, shoes and boots. And both of us have a thing for attractive boxes of all kinds. So no, we are not minimalists.


(Try this – or don’t: do an online search for ‘declutter’ and tell me how many times it took for the word to become a cluttering brain worm. Declutter, declutter, declutter….)


But although our life is not minimal, I would argue (mildly, gently) that it can be called simple. Not jet-setters or high-rollers, we don’t buy what we can’t afford, buy very sparingly of the new, and don’t gamble more than a couple dollars (literally) a year (scratch-off lottery tickets). We are possessed of nothing like a wine cellar, and the tiny little Paris kitchen in our old farmhouse does not even boast a dishwasher. Central air conditioning? Are you kidding? An old oscillating fan on the front porch and a tiny one in our bedroom window are all we ever need to get through a Michigan summer. 


Minimalism does not necessarily equal simplicity. And there are ways in which a so-called minimalist lifestyle may not even be as simple as it looks on the surface. 


One recent morning a man walked into my bookstore looking for a specific title – which is always a long shot, but as it happened that day I had in stock the book he had read years ago as a boy and wanted to read again. It was an out-of-print Michigan title, signed by the author, and while he had no reluctance to pay my $22 price, he surprised me by asking if I wanted him to mail the book back to me after he’d read it so I could “sell it again.” That was a new one! “I don’t like stuff,” he explained. And then he told me (this takes my breath away!) that if he wanted to “keep” a book, rather than pass it along to a friend when he finished reading it, he would take a saw, cut off the binding, and scan the pages! I begged him not to saw up the book he had just bought, and he said he wouldn’t, so it may come back to me, or he may pass it along to a friend. 


…He doesn’t like stuff


While not denying that they are material objects (and I love that about them), I’ve never considered books to be stuff. What I was mulling over in his wake, however, was not books as beloved or even sacred objects but the issue of human-readable vs. machine-readable text. In my simple home life, all I have to do to read one of my books, regardless of its age, is to take it in my hands and open it. At night I may need a lamp (or a couple candles if the power is out), but my daytime reading is completely grid-independent. And my book-reading requires no special digital storage or retrieval technology. I don’t need to worry that the “technology” of my printed books will be outdated during my lifetime, the content become inaccessible. Keeping my books comfortable and healthy adds no layer of complexity, either: if we are comfortable, they are comfortable.

The Artist once made a memorable statement about the way we live. “We can’t be trusted with horizontal surfaces,” he observed. True enough! Tables, counters, chairs, and couches all make themselves readily available as temporary storage for (among other things) slippy-sliding stacks of books, magazines, and mail. The minimalist mind would quail at the sight! And yet the solution, employed whenever one of us gets the urge, requires no cords or batteries.


What does ‘the simple life’ mean to you? Do you admire it? Are you living it? Is ‘clutter’ your nemesis or your comfort? Do I protest too much?

A bowl of apples: the simple life!


Dawn said...

I don't know, sometimes I think our life is pretty simiple compare to most, mostly due to no kids and their needs and things. But we have plenty of stuff on our own. So not such a simple life after all.

P. J. Grath said...

You raise an interesting point, Dawn. I have yet to see young parents with a minimalist lifestyle!

P. J. Grath said...

A friend challenged by the intricacies of leaving comments on Blogger e-mailed me this morning. She wrote (in part), "Love your latest on simplicity or the simple life. And your description of béguins. I often called my clutter of treasures chochkes (sp?) but I've lived near New York for many years now. Chop up a book and scan it? That hurts physically. I also have more scrapbooks that I can count with all the physical photos of kids and places. My kids treasure those images of their lives but they express that feeling by scanning them. Once thousands of images have been scanned do they ever look at them? Whereas I can pick out one of the scrapbooks and browse through it any time." By coincidence, a couple mornings ago I got out two big, heavy photograph albums from the last time I printed from digital files. One album is filled with friends and family, bookstore, gallery, and Sarah. The other, not yet full, holds photos of our Western adventures. They are my version of "coffee table books," I guess, and I never tire of looking through their pages.

Jeanie Furlan said...

A simple life! Is decluttering a part of that? I say no because you can be very content with lots of ‘stuff’ around you but live a very simple life. A simple life means, to me in any case, that you are pleased with fewer options than others might have. That other people will choose to fill their time doing more activities, and perhaps a simple life is one where you explore the world in different ways. By reading, By taking courses or researching, or writing. I DO wish we had more room for books in our one bedroom place here in Brooklyn. We have piles, for sure, but I love the library two blocks away so I can get or ask for lots of books. Hah! Also, our tree-lined sidewalks burst with books that people give away, especially on weekends. I feel just awful when the rain comes down on them and ruins them….just like the man with the saw - bam - what a destructive and violent way to not have ‘stuff’. Like the scanned photos, one wonders if he would look at the book in his “cloud”!

P. J. Grath said...

"Fewer options" is an interesting way to define simplicity, Jeanie. That makes sense to me. I confess, though, that I would not want to give up either the option of the public libraries or the option of having my own books at home! Your Brooklyn neighborhood sounds quite fascinating. Is there any way I could take a virtual walk around your block?

dave fox said...

You're right about not having to worry about the technology of your physical book, but I see trends that make this problem more nuanced. Namely, I find myself more and more needing my Kindle to even 'possess', as it were, the title that I desire. Like other forms of technology (hard-wired phone service for one, off the top of my head) business and society are powerful collaborators in pushing out the old and ushering in the new. I just wish all the old things need not be destroyed to make way.