Book Review: Goodbye, Things
(Or more accurately: Audiobook review)
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism was an easy audiobook to listen to and absorb. Much of the credit for the simple and sincere English prose has to go to translator Eriko Sugita, who kept to the point without being brusque or didactic in any way.
Minimalism is cyclical. Every few generations, it resurfaces, and people being to pare back after accumulating stuff. In recent years, minimalism is again popular, this time mostly detached from religious or artistic roots. Now, when natural and political environments seem to be reeling and hurtling towards chaos and collapse, minimalism is a way for many people to regain a sense of control over their lives. I'm not immune to this! It is a lot easier to focus on tidying up my home than it is to change society. Books such as this one proliferate in response to a collective sense of helplessness over enacting structural change. Hopefully, once more of us feel more confident and attain sufficient rest at home, we can truly push for radical change to reduce mass consumerism and the waste generated from it. (Don't worry, my macro rumination stops here.)
While on first glance the book seems to be a guide to minimalist living, I found it to be more of a review of Sasaki's personal journey towards minimalism. His approach, like most other minimalists these days, is not based on the spiritual; Zen as a spiritual practice doesn't factor into Sasaki's minimalism. This is very different from what I understand to live minimally, and the difference is evident whenever he recounts his experiences.
What I liked about the book other than its simplicity and sincerity is that it does have helpful tips and encouragement for people who are just starting to explore minimalism. It's very difficult to be as extreme a minimalist as Sasaki, who, at the time of writing, had only 150 possessions. in comparison, an average American home has over 300,000 items. I wish there is similar data on Singaporeans, but there isn't. However, since most of my generation grew up being told "don't waste things", it is likely that we have accumulated quite a large number of possessions. Using Sasaki's tips on how and where to begin makes it a lot less daunting to begin the process of minimizing our footprint.
However, i was not overly keen on certain aspects of the book. One particularly irksome aspect was his sycophantic adulation of Steve Jobs, or in his words, "Steve Jobs, the perfect minimalist". (I'm serious: that is the exact phrase repeated whenever he mentions Jobs.) Jobs might have applied minimalist design principles and appeared to live in minimalist surroundings, but I firmly believe that no billionaire is a minimalist. Hoarding wealth is the antithesis of keeping only what you need or love.
I also find Sasaki's motivation for cutting back to bare essentials to be, for lack of a better expression, too severe and demeaning to the self. One example he cited was getting rid of his dish towels and hand towels and bath towels, keeping only one traditional Japanese-type washcloth which he uses for his body and his dishes (he cleans the cloth between different uses). He claims that this approach means that he can enjoy soft, fluffy towels in hotels even more when he does have to travel. Hygiene issues aside, I don't find this to be inspiring. Why would you humble your way of living to such a point where you deny yourself an everyday comfort, in anticipation of future luxury? It's an ascetic life he leads, which I feel diminishes rather than encourages people to move towards less waste and to appreciate what they find worthy of keeping.
"I said goodbye to almost all my things and, to my surprise, I found I had changed myself in the process." -- Fumio Sasaki
On the whole I think this is a decent read. My approach towards minimalism is more spiritually motivated, stemming from my interest in Zen Buddhism. I aim to attain calmness of mind and body, starting from the self and radiating outward to change my surroundings. Sasaki's journey is from the external to the internal, and it is his own. He has found a contentment through it. It is as valid as any other approach to attaining peace of mind. His journey has inspired many people to begin changing, and that is the first step towards genuine growth.