Top critical review
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a useful book, in spite of its flaws
on 11 March 2007
I like an author who can keep a good, coherent argument going through an entire book, and to give Barry Schwartz credit I certainly think he does that here. It didn't hurt that I was ready to agree with him before I even started reading -- my own dislike of consumerism disposed me favourably towards his pro-simplicity argument straight away -- but, anyhow, I think it's fair to say that he makes his case thoroughly and backs it up with wide-ranging and relevant evidence.
I have a couple of caveats, some quite important. First, when I say the argument is made thoroughly, that doesn't mean that I think the book necessarily needs to be over 200 pages long. In fact, it really does begin to drag after about halfway through. The examples become overwhelmingly repetitive -- more and more of the same -- and the prose becomes laboured, as though the author knows in his heart he has said all he needs to say. His recommendations at the end of the book, for coping with excessive choice, have a desultory air about them, and I don't think Schwartz really has any suggestions that haven't been made more clearly and insightfully by others.
I can't help feeling that he could have made his points in about half the number of pages, maybe less. That would have been a good example to set, for someone so keen to extol the virtues of economy and simplification. But I guess that would have made his publisher's job of shifting the book somewhat less simple -- less than two hundred pages and people feel they're not getting their money's worth, right?
In spite of all that I nearly gave this book four stars, but I've knocked off another point for Schwartz's spectacularly ignorant dismissal of Voluntary Simplicity at the end of his introduction. Bizarrely, he uses an American magazine called 'Real Simple' as an example to try to show the limitations of this growing movement. He says that all the magazine does is encourage people to think more about how to achieve their 'wants', rather than trying to think about how to reduce these wants and live more economically. Schwartz is quite right -- that is precisely what that particular magazine exists to do (look at their website and you will see). But he has the wrong end of the stick entirely, because 'Real Simple' has absolutely nothing to do with the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It is a 'home and garden' type magazine that offers time-saving -- and rather expensive -- solutions for busy -- and rather wealthy -- middle-class American housewives. It's like a higher-class version of 'Family Circle'. I can't believe that Schwartz could have been so foolish as to mistake it for a magazine advocating alternative lifestyles. It's about as close to consumerist middle America as you could possibly get.
He then wonders aloud whether people could be attracted to a magazine that tried to focus instead on simplifying by reducing such 'wants'. ("Who would buy such a magazine?" is his curt dismissal.) Well, I don't know if there is a magazine like that but I do know there are hundreds of thousands of people in the US, Britain, and other Western countries, who are actively choosing to simplify their lives by reducing consumption, working less, and focussing more on quality of life than money. Call it 'simple living', call it 'downshifting' -- call it what you will, there is a large, well-established and intellectually respectable (read Duane Elgin's book 'Voluntary Simplicity') social movement out there trying to engage with precisely the same problems that Schwartz outlines in this book, and he appears blissfully ignorant of it.
I feel a little bit guilty because I've said mostly critical things in this review. Hopefully you'll notice that I've still given it three stars -- I do think quite well of this book, and I'm glad I read it. If nothing else, in spite of its flaws, the book got me thinking a little. And I'm always grateful for that.