This Thursday evening, at 7pm, I’ll be teaching a class in minimalism (or ‘living with less’) at Monastiraki in Montreal.
The event is part of Monastiraki’s “School PWYC” series in which people teach classes in whatever they’re enthusiastic about.
This class will explore the idea of living with very few material possessions. We’ll look at the reasons we might want to do this: to save money, to save the planet, to save our souls. We’ll discuss some hints and tips on how to live minimally, how to benefit from a minimalist hobby, and how to appreciate the bare necessities. We’ll celebrate some of the heroes of minimalism, from 19th-Century rebel printer William Morris to future-facing digital minimalists.
Here’s the event page at Ye Olde Book of Faces.
I daresay I’ll have some copies of New Escapologist to sell, and I’ll be happy to hang out and chat after the event too. Come along if you’re in the area!
A few people emailed us recently to declare a new-found enthusiasm for minimalism. Believe me when I say that if these particular individuals are excited about minimalism now, there’s hope for the whole world yet.
There often comes a point when a fringe activity becomes adopted by the mainstream; a point when a living practice is no longer seen as eccentric. Recycling is a good example. In the 80s, my family seemed fairly alone in separating our garbage into plastic, paper, glass, and organic waste. We weren’t exactly hippies, which suggests the tipping point was already on the horizon, but our activity was certainly seen as odd by our friends and neighbours. In the 90s, recycling became seen as a responsibility, but it was still fashionable to shirk it. Today, the infrastructure to support recycling is convenient and ubiquitous, and recycling has become a matter of civic pride. What do you mean you don’t recycle?
I think minimalism (or ‘Reduction’ if you remember the most rejected of ‘The Three Rs’) is in a similar place to where recycling was in the 90s: people are becoming aware of the advantages, to stop reacting so violently to the suggestion that they voluntarily curb their consumer privileges, and to appreciate the minimalist aesthetic. Tablet computing is already encouraging a post-materialist attitude in some areas of consumption, and cloud computing promotes a certain distance between you and your stuff.
I think we’re on the brink of a third wave in terms of our attitudes to stuff. The new cycle will concern itself with empty space and quietness as the new luxury goods. Why a third wave? Peak Oil: the idea that we’ve already reached the point in time when the global production of oil reached its maximum rate, after which total global production gradually declines. We have to get used to not being able to buy cheap, disposable, largely-plastic products. We have to get used to inaccessibility due to products not being so readily and cheaply shipped.
Technology will partway solve the problem. Oil can be replaced by renewable energy resources. But to really solve the problem, we have to adjust to a new relationship between humans and stuff. It’s not a greenie fantasy anymore, but a cold necessity. Out goes the cheap and disposable, in comes the expensive and durable. Out goes lots of pointless stuff, in comes maximum utility and beauty. Out goes the idea that high-tech will save everything, in comes the balance of Brave New and Brave Old Worlds.
Space and quiet will be the new luxury goods. You’ll see. Buy shares in the quiet industries.
We often talk about minimalism at New Escapologist and our interest is three-fold:
– Environmental: by reducing your consumer habits, you have less impact on the natural environment.
– Financial: by consuming less, you don’t need to spend as much money. Consequentially you don’t need to work so hard at earning money.
– Aesthetic: by reducing physical possessions, you can have a cleaner, more manageable living or working space.
In our time talking about minimalism, we’ve encountered a few criticisms. Some of them are fair, some understandably verge on the hostile (understandable because minimalism asks people to curb their consumer freedom), and others are from people who’ve completely missed the point. In this post, I respond to some of the most common or most remarkable.
I have a guest post at a blog called Skool of Life. My piece responds to six real and fairly common criticisms of minimalism.
The post has also resulted in some reasonable comments, to which I am able to respond. In particular, a bloke called Andy worries that defining one’s self as a minimalist is as bad as defining yourself as a materialist. It gave me the opportunity to say this:
1. The desire to define yourself one way or another is a piece of psychological baggage a minimalist might want to jettison. Let’s not worry about defining ourselves. Self-expression is a nonsense championed by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. It is little more than a marketing device that minimalists should proof themselves against.
2. Even if you choose to define yourself by owning a small number of things, your doing so is certainly better than defining yourself as someone who owns a large number of things. Your reluctance to consume will help the environment and help your wallet. So, while I’d advise against defining yourself in this way, it is still outwardly and empirically better than defining yourself as a materialist.
Enjoy the post! Please Tweet the link around if you can.
The only real difference between an Escapologist and someone who simply hates their job is that the Escapologist has begun to take deliberate measures toward actually changing things. I think most people who hate their job don’t realise that escape is an option.
We think that the more we have, the happier we will be. We never know what tomorrow might bring, so we collect and save as much as we can. This means we need a lot of money, so we gradually start judging people by how much money they have. You convince yourself that you need to make a lot of money so you don’t miss out on success. And for you to make money, you need everyone else to spend their money. And so it goes.
So I said goodbye to a lot of things, many of which I’d had for years. And yet now I live each day with a happier spirit. I feel more content now than I ever did in the past.
Is another book about minimalism strictly necessary. NO. But never mind. There’s wisdom here and the photos are nice.
Watching a 1994 Arena film about Philip K. Dick and — bang — they bring up kipple.
Kipple is a word invented by Dick to describe the sort of detritus that accumulates around you almost without your notice. He means things like half-burned tea lights, light bulbs which may or may not work, and nice pens for which you long ago ran out of ink. They’re there now, haunting the backs of drawers.
In case you’re wondering, this is an ever-so-slightly different sort of clutter to dark matter.
I once started an essay for New Escapologist called War On Kipple in which I’d describe the kipple problem and offer tips on how to keep kipple at bay. I ditched it because there are topics other than minimalsm to write about in Escapology, and even within minimalism kipple is a smaller problem than, say, houses and cars and storage units. It was also too easy to come across as a fascist when talking about the abolition of kipple: does purity matter, ever? Is a maniacal purge of the kipple universe necessary? Maybe there are ways of resolving these questions but this was the line of thinking that made me ditch the essay.
Kipple struck me as an odd thing to include in a documentary about Philip K. Dick in which you’ve only got an hour to play with, so maybe minimalism and entropy have a wider appeal as subjects than I thought.
So if you’re interested in kipple, here’s the discussion about it from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody here to fight the kipple.”
“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.”
“Your place, here,” he said, “this apartment you’ve picked — it’s too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apts. But — ” He broke off.
Isidore said, “We can’t win.”
“Why not?” […]
“No one can win against kipple,” he said, “except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
We’ve moved again. Such is the life of an Escapologist. Escape is mobility.
You may remember that we returned to Scotland from Canada and, very fortunately, were able to rent a flat quite cheaply from a friend who, making her own great escape, had left her home for pastures new. “Do you want a tenant?” I asked. For over a year we enjoyed a fine Escapological economy, our rent funding a friend’s escape and her property providing us with a hassle- and paperwork-free landing pad.
Well this was always going to be temporary. We wanted a better-situated HQ and our landlady would make more money renting her flat to real people instead of her slacker pals. So two months ago we moved to Hyndland, a part of Glasgow which, Wikipedia boasts, is home to “young bourgeois bohemians including a number of noted authors, poets, actors and footballers.”
I don’t know if I’d describe a footballer as a bourgeois bohemian (I suspect this is the result of two edits, footballers being tacked on by someone, perhaps a Hyndland estate agent, who doesn’t know what is meant by bourgeois bohemia) but you get the idea.
It’s quite posh in a tumble-down, half-reclaimed-by-nature sort of way and our neighbours all seem to be couples who, despite low incomes, won’t tolerate discomfort and ugliness. Suits us.
Almost as soon as we moved in, friend Landis came over from Chicago to live in our spare room for a couple of months. It’s been like having a pet artist. He sits at his drafting table all day long, feverishly cross-hatching and coming out, bleary-eyed, for a snack every full moon or so.
It’s been great having Landis over and our home has felt like a little artists’ colony, with he and Samara drawing and me writing at my laptop and something spicy simmering away on the kitchen stove. Not bad. Every now and then we get together and ad-lib a little project like this podcast about notebooks. We look like this:
When we moved in, all we owned was eight boxes of books and clothes, and three small pieces of furniture: even less than in our last move. The flat was unfurnished, so we had to place orders at Ikea and spend some time mooning around in thrift shops. This is all fairly contrary to my nature, so I’ve tried to see it as a creative venture — making something — rather than simply an acquisitive one.
We’ve been guided by minimalism — Is this thing necessary? How few bookshelves can we get away with? Shall we jettison these? — in an act of what in fact is a considerable expansion to our total mass.
This is a good lesson. Even in acquisition (especially in acquisition) be guided by minimalism. Also, “minimal” is relative to your needs. Just don’t kid yourself about your “needs”.
Having Landis over has been helpful in these early weeks, as he’s been able to help build our flatpacks. In fact, the whole move as been a barn-raising exercise with friends coming over to help with bits and bobs. This is nice not just in that it makes the process easier — many hands, light work — but also in that it imbues a corner of the flat with a memory. The bathroom door is now the door Alan sanded down for us. The futon is the futon Neil helped us to build. The sofa was put together by Peter and Sam. etc.
In other news, the Patreon campaign is going fairly well but perhaps not as well as I’d hoped. I think we’ll be okay but I do need more people on board. Dig deep, if you can, and subscribe to the new essay series for as little as £1.
A funny postcard arrives in the mail this morning from Sam’s parents in Canada, depicting scenes of toque-hatted Montrealers trudging through the grey slush and snowmobiles ploughing through the streets. I am so glad to be in Glasgow right now! But bless you, Canada.
A couple of people said they wished Escape Everything! had contained a bibliography. I’m sorry it didn’t. This was a bit of an oversight on my part. Since I’d usually name the book or article I was talking about in the main text, I didn’t immediately see a need for a bibliography. But this missed the opportunity to talk about books, which is quite unlike me. So here it is: the missing bibliography. It’s thorough but not comprehensive, itemising the widest shoulders I stood on and pointing to further reading. Still, I hope it’s useful and fun. The book links are affiliate links but be certain to check your local library first. Happy to discuss these books or provide extra information in the comments thread.
The Houdini biography alluded to is The Secret Life of Houdini (2006) by Larry Sloman and William Kalush. Details on Lulu the vanishing pachyderm come from Hiding The Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible (2003) by Jim Steinmeyer. The quote from Adam Phillips comes from his book Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape (2002). For some printed Simon Munnery, I recommend his little volume of aphorisms How to Live (2005) and my own history book about his early work You Are Nothing (2012). Grayson Perry wrote a wonderful book called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011) and another called Playing to the Gallery (2014). Myles na Gopaleen is the Irish Times pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan (AKA Flann O’Brien), his finest peluche collected in The Best of Myles: A Selection from Cruiskeen Lawn (1968).
Chapter One: Work
Bob Black’s wisdom comes from his essay The Abolition of Work (1985) and is essential reading. The Buckminster Fuller quote comes from an article in The New York Magazine (1970). David Graeber’s popular essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs comes from Strike! Magazine (2013). The “Richard Scarry” quote from Tim Kreider is in The Busy Trap, New York Times (2013) and also inspired a nice cartoon by Tom the Dancing Bug (2014). My history of work material came from many places but one short book I recommend is The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (2000) by Joanne B. Ciulla. Notes from Overground by Tiresias is an amazing book, giving the account of an intelligent person’s life in commuter hell.
Chapter Two: Consumption
The idea that your consumption is someone else’s work and the business about a country’s GDP comes from Enlightenment 2.0. (2014) by Joseph Heath and perhaps also his earlier title Filthy Lucre (2009) which delivers in its promise to give “remedial economics for people on the left.” Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) by E.F. Schumacher is a core text of alternative economics. The prediction of a 15-hour work week comes from Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) by John Maynard Keynes, but I found it through How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life (2012) by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. Bea Johnson’s blog can be found at zerowastehome.com. Enough: breaking free from the world of more (2008) by John Naish is a very inspiring book about living within one’s means. The Music of Chance (1990) is an absurdist novel by Paul Auster and contains all that wonderful stuff about debt, labour and thankless wall-building.
Chapter Three: Bureaucracy
The detail about “International Business Machines” comes from IBM and the Holocaust (2001) by Edwin Black. Green MP Caroline Lucas’ book is called Honourable Friends?: Parliament and the Fight for Change (2015) and is marvellous and must be read before parliament is reformed and it goes out of date!
Chapter 4: Our Stupid, Stupid Brains
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Coming Up for Air (1939) by George Orwell are both essential reading for free thinkers; the former being a collection of journalism on working-class life, and the latter an absorbing novel about nostalgia and the present. Sartre’s idea of Bad Faith is articulated in Being and Nothingness (1943), which is barely readable and best avoided, perhaps in favour of his novel Nausea (1938). Roald Dahl discusses his life as a Royal Dutch Shell employee in his lovely memoir Going Solo (1986). Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is that neat little book about Resistance. David Cain’s wise essays can be read for free at Raptitude.com. Brian Dean’s great website lives at anxietyculture.com and he also wrote a nice article, “Escape Anxiety,” in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004) is essential stuff, especially the “thesis” page and the Bohemia chapter. Mark Fisher’s essay is called “Suffering with a Smile” and appeared in The Occupied Times (2013). Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Free (2006) is the most essential reading of all and his How To Be Idle (2004) and Brave Old World (2011) are good too. Musigs on the prisoner’s dilemma comes from Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell (2004).
Chapter 5: The Good Life
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian text on the good life, a goodly portion of which is dedicated to rutting. Lin Yutang is the writer of, among other works, The Importance of Living (1937), which is highly readable and worth your time. Much has been written on Eudaimonia and the core texts are probably Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics. The stuff about consumers versus appreciators comes from Happiness: A Very Short Introduction by Daniel M. Haybron (2014). Palliative nurse Bronnie Ware’s Regrets of the Dying is a blog post from 2009. For more on Epicurus I refer you again to Status Anxiety (2004) by Alain de Botton. For more on the Stoics try A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) by William B. Irvine. I make brief reference in this chapter to The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2009) by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006) by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, both of which are worth a look, and Look Up Glasgow (2013) by Adrian Searle. For books to get you excited about astronomy, you can’t go wrong with Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan or some of the amateur astronomy introductions by Patrick Moore. I make passing reference to The Fruit Hunters (2008) by Adam Gollner. “The last piece of chocolate in the universe” is the idea of my child self but something similar apparently appears in Savor (2015) by Niequist Shauna. I make a incorrect claim that the 10,000 rule comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) when in fact it comes from the same author’s Outliers (2008).
Chapter 6: How Escapologists Use Their Freedom
The crab anecdote comes from an extremely charming work of naturalism and neurology called The Soul of an Octopus (2015) by Sy Montgomery. The quote about Wall Street and toilet cleaning comes from Vagabonding (2002) by Rolf Potts, which is worth reading if you ignore the garbage about working for one’s happiness. The Oscar Wilde quote about “the perfection of the soul within” comes from his gorgeous essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891). Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent (2009) is about how to combine reproduction with boozy indolence. Simeon Barry’s essay about travel with a young family is “Nothing But Time” and appears in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). The concept of “Filling the Void” is well-trodden territory but that phrasing of the problem comes from The 4-Hour Work Week (2007) by Tim Ferriss. The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) is Charles Darwin’s account of his five-year voyage around the world and is surprisingly readable for its age and highly likable.
Chapter 7: A Montreal Year
“That Will Do” is what Houdini said to the McGill University student who punched him repeatedly in the stomach just before he died, a fact that comes from the Houdini biography referenced in the introduction section above. Much wisdom can be found in A Philosophy of Walking (2014) by Frédéric Gros as well as The Lost Art of Walking (2008) by Geoff Nicholson. For approachable natural history, try anything by Gerald Durrell, Leonard Dubkin ad Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Passing reference is made to Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe and I’d also recommend a novel about it’s author Foe (1986) by J. M. Coetzee. If you’re interested in eating your way to immortality, Fantastic Voyage (2004) by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman is the go-to text albeit a little old.
Chapter 8: Preparation
The quotation from Charles Simic (not Simi – a typo I had nothing to do with) comes from The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks (2008). “I never hear the word ‘escape'” is a poem by Emily Dickinson and can be found, strangely enough, in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. The details about Robert Graves’ assertion that there’s no money in poetry comes from Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2002) by Virginia Nicholson which is essential to read if you’re interested in Bohemian life, though I also refer briefly to his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929). An account of Alexander Supertramp’s life can be found in Into the Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer. Dandelion Wine (1957) is a lovely if a tad bucolic novel by Ray Bradbury, a quote from which appears in New Escapologist Issue 1. The cancer diaries referred to belong to the library of a hospice I worked in.
Chapter 9: Escape Work
Arbeit macht frei means “work sets you free” and appears in the ironwork gates at the Auschwitz work/death camp, a fact I first learned from If This Is a Man (1947) by Primo Levi. Jacob Lund Fisker’s book is called Early Retirement Extreme (2010) and evolved from his blog of the same name. I make passing reference to an item from The Onion (2015) and another, The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit, from GQ magazine (2014). Rob West’s blog charting the progress of his house-building project in British Columbia is called The Hand-Crafted Life. Ben Law’s core work on traditional house-building techniques is called Woodland Craft (2015) and Mark Boyle’s “Moneyless Man” column (2009-10) is archived at the Guardian website. Nicolette Stewart’s item about tiny homes can be found in New Escapologist Issue 8. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) by Henry David Thoreau is the obvious starting point for anyone considering a life in the woods near their mum’s house. Montreal Martin’s blog is called Things I Find in the Garbage. The interview with Michael Palin referred to is in Idler 37 (2006); I’m in it too, albeit under the wrong name, with a cover story called “Death to Professionalism”. How to Avoid Work (1949) by William J. Reilly is a witty if tricky-to-find postwar career manual. Wringham’s escape plan first appeared in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009).
Chapter 10: Escape Consumption
Mr Money Mustache has a blog of that very name. Diogenes of Sinope can be encountered in Diogenes of Sinope – Life and Legend (2013). Some of the practicalities of minimalism were first printed in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). Joshua Glenn’s The Wage Slave’s Glossary (2011) is an electric little book and is in fact a sequel to his The Idler’s Glossary (2008).
Chapter 11: Escape Bureaucracy
Roderick Long’s “delusional street person” comes from Just Ignore Them (2004) in Strike at the Root. La Boétie wrote Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1576) which I came across in the dazzling How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell. Kafka’s The Trial (1925) is the go-to work of fiction for bureaucratic absurdity. Narnia and Bas-Lag are the worlds of C. S. Lewis and China Mieville respectively. I don’t recall where I read about Chiune Sugihara but there’s a nice item about him in the Japan Times (2015). The Pomodoro Technique (2006) is a cute but effective productivity system concocted by Francesco Cirillo.
Chapter 12: Escape from our Stupid, Stupid Brains
Naked Stephen Gough’s point about being good comes from a Guardian (2012) item. The stuff about fear of flying versus rationalism comes from Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (2008) Dan Gardener. The mags I recommend for longform journalism are The New Yorker, Jacobin and Aeon. Much of my info on the Bohemians of history is from Among the Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2003) by Virginia Nicholson. Caitlin Doughty is mentioned, whose first book is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2014). The Wise Space Baby was orginally mentioned in New Escapologist Issue 10 (2014), and the “damning conclusions” drawn by astronauts on the international space station are alluded to in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (2013) by Chris Hadfield. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (1967) is a real thing and can be seen on Wikipedia. The stuff about Quat leaves comes from The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee (1999) by Stewart Lee Allen.
Chapter 13: The Post-Escape Life
Henry Miller’s list can be seen in Henry Miller on Writing (1964).
“Love laughs at locksmiths,” comes from a signed photograph of Houdini but has an older origin, featuring on an 1805 satirical print held by the British Museum. The other Houdini epigrams come from Handcuff Secrets (1907), Magical Rope Ties And Escapes (1920), Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), Houdini’s Paper Magic: The Whole Art of Performing with Paper (1922).
In the wake of the Panama Papers I’d like to offer some advice to The Elite.
There are far easier ways to avoid paying tax than what you lot get up to. Why trouble yourself and sully your reputation over complicated offshore affairs when you could simply work less?
I join the nation in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, but unlike the nation I have the PM’s best interests at heart.
In the UK, as a politician of all people should know, you can earn as much as £11,000 before you’re asked to pay anything to the tax office. That’s plenty to live on, so stop earning, silly. Millions of people earn far less without the motivation of tax avoidance!
Bertrand Russell observed this long ago: “In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.”
Unfortunately, if you’re serious about this, there’s also consumption tax (that’s VAT here in the UK) to avoid. This means ceasing to buy so much stuff. This is called minimalism or voluntary simplicity. Historically, it’s been seen as a highly virtuous way to live.
You can still do your civic duty by paying at least some consumption tax–perhaps on groceries and other noshable goods–and by paying your council or municipal tax. I love to pay my council tax because it funds the things I like and things that benefit the community instead of the central government and those armed forces and bombs. £140 a month (between two!) for clean water, sewage removal, garbage and litter collection, schools, libraries and parks is a bargain. Moreover, when you work less you’ll really get the most out of those things.
My advice to the tax-dodging rich is to get real and do it properly with your reputation intact. Stop working. Nobody will miss you. Retire with dignity to a nice cottage with a view somewhere and write your memoirs. Quietly. Maybe your book could be called How I learned to stop swindling the nation and love to loaf.