Months ago, when I decided to review books that would show us how to simplify our lives, I didn’t anticipate I’d be writing during a pandemic, where we’d have nothing to do except send our friends memes of quarantine drinking, irritated pets and desperate mothers hiding from their children in their cars. Somehow, I was scooped by nature.
So yes, in one sense this is like reading about diet books during a famine. But in another sense it feels right for the times. Because if you are not one of the essential workers making life possible right now — and if you are, you have my love and gratitude — then you are learning that enforced leisure can be just as stressful as frenetic activity. Sooner or later (sooner, please God), quarantine will end and we will again be faced with the demands of our go-go culture, perhaps more than ever. These books may help.
“Luxury,” the writer Pico Iyer noted after losing everything he owned in a fire, “is not a matter of all the things you have, but rather all the things you can afford to live without.” In SIMPLY LIVING WELL: A Guide to Creating a Natural Low-Waste Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $24), Julia Watkins has taken this idea to heart. We live, Watkins writes, in the linear economy, where resources are extracted, processed, consumed and discarded. For our physical and spiritual health, we need to adopt instead the five Rs of the circular economy — refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot (compost, for the less alliteratively inclined) — creating a household that is closer to our grandmother’s than to our own right now. And here you will find home tools and household supplies that can be made without the usual toxins and plastics. Admittedly, I will not be making my own beeswax wraps from pine resin instead of using aluminum foil, nor will I be whipping up homemade ketchup with 12 separate ingredients, a couple of which I’ve never heard of. Still, I’m happy I could if I wanted to, thanks to Watkins. It’s not as if I’ve got anything better to do. And I actually did make a “simmer pot,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a low-boiling collection of fragrant stuff I had lying around the house that makes it smell homey. All the lavender and cinnamon sticks I bought that did squat to kill my moths naturally? Into the simmer pot.
In a period of deep medical uncertainty, Paul Offit has shown up to be a kind of Snopes of medicine — and in OVERKILL: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far (Harper/HarperCollins, 288 pp., $28.99), to show us how even with all the extraordinary technology available to us, doing less can do more. Offit is a professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine; he demonstrates, through voluminous research, what works and what doesn’t. There are many surprises here, some welcome and some not. (Guess what? According to Dr. Offit, heart stents don’t make you live longer.) But his goal, I think, is to help readers make more informed choices when opting for treatments. Most interesting to me, in the age of coronavirus, was his contention that when you get a virus, you should live with the fever and take fever reducers only as a last resort. Why? We have fevers for a reason. Viruses don’t like the heat. Our bodies are working the way they should, killing off the virus, when we shiver and feel uncomfortable. So, he claims, treating fevers not only prolongs an illness; it can make it worse.
I’m a bit dubious about Courtney Carver’s PROJECT 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Is So Much More (Tarcher Perigee, 224 pp., $20). “Simple is the new black,” Carver writes, and the premise of the book is that a closet of many sizes and moods is a waste of both psychic and financial resources. The closet is a reflection of our emotional state — we are bored, we are worrying what other people think of us, we cling to the past. OK. But what if we aren’t emotional shoppers, just shoppers? Certainly, minimalism works beautifully for some. Elizabeth Warren was a genius at this. With the rotating collection of Nina McLemore jackets atop the same basic black shirt and pants, we could concentrate on what she was saying. But also genius is the maximalism of Nancy Pelosi, who likes to shop, likes variety and knows how to put it all together. Equally successful, equally valid, and I enjoy watching how Pelosi matches her necklace with her blouse.
I was unaware of Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller’s Buy Nothing movement until I picked up their new manifesto, THE BUY NOTHING, GET EVERYTHING PLAN: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More and Living Generously (Atria, 288 pp., $25). The American home, the authors write, contains more than 300,000 items; wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to buy every single refrigerator magnet, scented candle and Hummel figurine? Their approach is not about bartering, but about giving and receiving: the essentials of the gift economy are “gives, asks and expressions of gratitude.” The book lays out the ways we can reduce both our carbon footprint and, perhaps more important, our unquenchable lust for more, by joining neighborhood collectives where the groups offer not just stuff, but self — i.e., skills and services. I joined my nearest Buy Nothing group on Facebook and, this being the East Village, someone was looking for a waist trainer; but then again there was a generous supply of Flonase for the taking. My favorite? A quarantinee, stuck at home, gifted her monthly MetroCard to a health care worker. The original owner of the card didn’t need it. A nurse on the front line of the crisis benefited. And our community was enriched. Simple.