Warning: this post contains spoilers for The Minimalists’ memoir Everything That Remains
I don’t often read books that are what I would consider “trendy,” or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t often read books on trendy topics. Really, it would be quite accurate to say that I do hardly anything that would qualify as trendy. To be “trendy,” you either have to be trend-setter, or attuned to what other people are thinking and doing in the moment, and I am neither of those things. However, I’m sort of a shadow member of my mom’s book club (I read most of the books they pick out to read, but I don’t join their discussions, and they don’t know that I read “with” them…), and this was one of their recent picks, so I decided to give it a try. Plus, I always like to gain insight into other lifestyles and how people decide to live their lives.
For me, minimalism has always been a complicated topic. On the one hand, I’m drawn to the flexibility inherent to such a lifestyle, and especially to its efficiency. It’s probably the engineer in my talking, but I hate to see things go to waste, whether that’s food, money, time, or “stuff.” Minimalism would, it seem, logically result in a highly efficient lifestyle. On the other hand, that same desire not to see things go to waste means that I am often disinclined to throw things away. Why throw away the broken tablet from ten years ago, when one day I might decide to take it apart and use its components? Why discard that one inch stub of a wooden pencil, when it can still write (even though it will no longer rest on the crook of my thumb properly and is therefore really uncomfortable)? That latter is a tendency of mine that I have to fight regularly, in part because in reality I know that I probably won’t take that tablet apart and use its components, and in part because my wife considers it dangerously close to hoarding.
Before reading Everything That Remains, my understand of minimalism was just a core philosophy of possessing no unnecessary things, which is part of why I always regarded it as a niche philosophy, and I kind of expected this book to be along the utopian idealist lines of things like Walden Two. After all, after you have food, water, and shelter, what else can you really define as necessary? And that can really be the bare minimum, too. So how about just a lean-to in the woods somewhere, with a few traps to catch food, and a stream nearby for water? Somehow, that lifestyle didn’t have much appeal to me. Everything That Remains, though, defines minimalism a little differently, as “only retaining that which adds value to your life.” That seems a little more viable, to me.
As much as I appreciated the revised definition of minimalism, the writing of Everything That Remains left something to be desired. It was a little too conversational, too stream-of-consciousness, and the interjection-via-footnote system was clunky and somewhat hard to read, frequently interrupting the book’s rhythm without (by and large) adding a whole lot of value. This is not always the case – I love the way Terry Pratchett uses footnotes in many of his novels – but it definitely was here. More than that, however, I found the narrator somewhat off-putting, an odd combination of preachy and whiney. Core to this problem were too many assumptions about my life based on theirs.
Just like I’m didn’t run out and start a gratitude diary after reading The Gratitude Diaries, I’m not going to run out and become a minimalist after reading Everything That Remains. For me, the writing left something to be desired, especially where it strayed polemic. However, it did offer some intriguing insights into different forms of minimalism, and offered me a better understanding of what being minimalist actually means (turns out that it usually doesn’t mean living in a shack in the woods doing subsistence farming). Plus, as I was reading it, I found myself looking around and wondering if everything I had was really something that added value to my life. Sometimes, it is worth reading a book like this just to bring ingrained habits up to the level of conscious thought.