I have roughly organized this bibliography as follows:
- Required Reading — just starting out? Dive into the best (IMHO)
- Capitalism and Work — bedrock texts to discuss the present moment
- Simple Values — books that indirectly reflect the value of ‘less’
- Business & Productivity — simplicity applied to work and business
- Nature, Countryside, Agriculture — getting back to the physical basics
- Theoretical — simplicity’s relationship to complexity theory
- Autobiographies — first-person accounts of simplifying
- Misses — were not worth the time to read, in my opinion
- Reading list — titles I am planning on reading
If you are looking for recommendations, I’d say begin with these titles.
Vandenbroeck, Goldian (ed). (1978). Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty. Harper Colophon Books.
It is simple and beautiful: Goldian Vandenbroeck collects the sayings and maxims of the ages on the topic of simplicity and compiles them into a topically structured archive of wisdom. This is a special collection and I keep coming back and revisiting these pages.
Shi, David E. (2007). The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. University of Georgia Press.
This book is a retelling of American history from the vantage point of the endless tension in American culture between the liberty of independence and the compulsion to acquire wealth. Extremely valuable for its scope and analysis. This book, in the ‘history of ideas’ frame, profoundly informs any and all subsequent readings on the topic of simplicity.
Thoreau, Henry David. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity ! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand ; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” (p. 99)
Dobbin, Robert. (2013). The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian. Penguin Classics.
Extant writings from the Greek school of thought known to us as ‘cynicism’ — important texts for us today as we find in people like Antisthenes and Diogenes the basis for so much later thought on the practice of simple living.
Epicurus. (Strodach, George K. trans). (2012). The Art of Happiness. Penguin Classics.
The extant writings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), an early pioneer of advocating for self-sufficiency and ease of life through the abandonment of extraneous commitments.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1908). Essay on Self-Reliance. The Roycrofters.
Inherent in the pursuit of simple living is the conviction that one has, in themselves and in what they can do, all that they need to be happy and fulfilled. This essay is a classic call to wake up and think for oneself, and in this respect, I think, it deserves a place in the canon of texts on simple living.
Gregg, Richard. (1936). The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Pendle Hill.
Possibly the text that coined the term ‘voluntary simplicity’ — at least according to Wikipedia. This little tract is a gem. Obviously written in the context of the 1930s, but oozes relevant observations and ideas.
Capitalism and Work
There might be a way to discuss simplicity in the modern world without analyzing capitalism as the dominant mode of production. But I don’t know what this alternative discourse might be. As far as I can tell, it’s frankly impossible to imagine simplifying our lives without exploring the all encompassing impact of capitalism on our lives and work.
Graeber, David. (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon and Schuster.
Not technically a book about simplicity, but a glorious take-down of the complicated meaninglessness that surrounds and swallows so much contemporary work. You leave this book searching, among other things, for a simpler way to be in the world.
Illich, Ivan. (1978). The Right to Useful Unemployment and its professional enemies. Marion Boyars.
Again, not a book in the ‘simplicity genre’ per se, but a terrific theoretical analysis of why and how modern life became so complicated. Illich lays the blame primarily in the expansive role of professionals as the power brokers of society. Whether you are a professional or not, this is highly provocative reading.
Veblen, Thorstein. (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Macmillan.
This book is a classic. Countless readers, my self among them, have discovered Veblen’s analysis of social order to be cunningly insightful and even personally implicating. Whereas simplicity is often commingled with leisure, this text remains a helpful frame of reference for distinguishing cultural displays of relaxation (conspicuous consumption) and the economics of leisure qua leisure.
Russell, Bertrand. (1972). In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster.
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” Preach!
Lafargue, Paul. (1880). The Right To Be Lazy. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company.
Powerfully ironic and incisive. “The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labour,” writes Lafargue. So how has it come to be that this “love of work, the furious passion for work” has taken hold in “nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway”?
Fisher, Mark. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.
As the saying goes, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” But why is capitalism the end of our imagination? What are the ramifications for our lives, mental health, children, and planet?
Hemstock, Gillian & McEnaney, Frank. (1986). The Careerfree Life. Mosaic Press.
I don’t think it is really possible to simplify life without taking a long, hard look at one’s career. Careers, Hemstock and McEnaney argue, are a logic that ultimately rob us of the joy of living. Composed of short, pithy reflections, this little book punches well above its weight class.
Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. SAGE Publications Ltd.
What complicates life? Stuff. Why is there so much stuff? Baudrillard analyzes capitalism from a sociological perspective to explain the situation. Of all the Baudrillard books I have read, this one is probably among the most accessible.
Graaf, John de. Wann, David. & Naylor, Thomas H. (2005). Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. Second Edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
“affluenza, n. – a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” I suppose this book is now a modern classic in the canon of anti-consumerism literature. Affluenza argues that dissatisfaction is a corporately-funded, politically-sponsored plague on the masses — an ultimately ruinous contagion.
Honoré, Carl. (2004). In Praise of Slow: how a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. Vintage Canada.
This book is something of an anchoring point in our house, and it has been so for quite a few years now. In Praise of Slow brings into sharp view the extent to which trying to pack more things into life at an ever increasing speed can lead to a disorientated existence. In contrast, slowing down is the beginning of noticing, and noticing, arguably, is the beginning of living.
Payne, Kim John. (2009). Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Random House Publishing Group.
“We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed” (page 5). Payne proceeds to reimagine family life without the ‘four pillars of too much’ and the potential is refreshing and enticing indeed. I have deeply appreciated listening to this audiobook with my partner and making some important family choices together about the kind of possessions, choices, information, and pace of life we want in our home.
Cain, Susan. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Crown.
Not a book about simplicity by name, but a book about the importance of the people in our lives who are not the loudest, surest, and fastest — who also, it turns out, tend to be the simpler folks, too.
Wagner, Charles. (1904). The Simple Life. New York: Mcclure, Phillips Amp Co.
“When one passes in review the individual causes that disturb and complicate our social life, by whatever names they are designated, and their list would be long, they all lead back to one general cause, which is this: the confusion of the secondary with the essential.
Business & Productivity
McKeown, Greg. (2014). Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Crown Publishing Group.
At times, this feels like one of those books that clings to a certain word (in this case, ‘essentialism’) in order to parrot a bunch of otherwise apparently self-evident truths. That said, McKeown’s grounding premise here is a solid anchor point: if something is not necessary, why keep doing it? What is the opportunity cost? This book is a great reminder to come back to the question of necessity on a regular basis.
Robin, Vicki. (2018). Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Fully Revised and Updated for 2018. Penguin Books.
The book has become like the unofficial bible of the FIRE — Financial Independence, Retire Early — movement. The linchpin of this personal financial planning program is rethinking the definition of money: not as a tool for exchange, but as the quantification of your “life energy.” Money is only a quantified representation of time and life you invested in acquiring it. This perspective, argues Robin, fundamentally changes our relationship to money.
Fried, Jason & Hansson, David Heinemeier. (2010). Rework. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Not branded as a ‘simplicity’ guide, but a refreshing assault on the jargon and nonsense of typical business advice. The inherent simplicity is what sets it apart.
Jensen, Bill. (2000). Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
Perhaps ironically, this is not a particularly ‘simple’ book. However, I include it as a reference point here because it provoked me to start thinking about my work differently when I first read it back in 2002.
Vanderkam, Laura. (2018). Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Portfolio.
This title definitely (and self consciously) falls under the self-help category, but the author’s experience paints a compelling argument for the use of time tracking as a way to make objective and priority-based decisions about what one does with one’s days, and thus one’s life.
Nature, Countryside, Agriculture
There is a long history of discovering simplicity by rediscovering the basics of nature.
Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press.
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” (p. 6)
Kains, Maurice G. (1935). Five Acres and Independence: A Practical Guide to the Selection and Management of the Small Farm. Dover.
Originally written in 1935 as a ‘how to’ guide for city folks who seeking to escape the nonsense of city life for the country. Kains humorously sets out to the debunk nostalgic, idealized notions of the agriculture task for his readers, warning them of the immensity of the work ahead. This book exemplifies the paradox that simplicity might require a hitherto imaginable degree of effort to achieve.
The following texts help position and describe simplicity in relationship to complexity theory.
Gribbin, John. (2004). Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity. New York: Random House.
Inspired in no small part by the work of Jim Lovelock, Deep Simplicity provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to complexity theory, with an eye to pointing out the underlying simplicity of systemic interactions.
Kluger, Jeffrey. (2008). Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple). New York: Hyperion.
Simplexity is a journalists account of how widely complex situations and systems are often initiated by small and seemingly insignificant triggers. This frame of reference, like Deep Simplicity, provides an introductory exposition on complexity theory.
May, Matthew. (2009). In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. Broadway Books.
In teasing out the characteristics elegance, Matthews positions elegance as reflective of the kinds of solutions that can be found ‘on the other side’ of complexity. Thus, there is ‘simplicity’ in the sense of not understanding the full picture, but upon delving into the complexity, an elegant solution emerges as a response that appears ‘simple’ although in fact in is the product of significant mental labour.
Bono, Edward de. (1998). Simplicity. Viking.
I personally find Edward de Bono’s self-aggrandizement exhausting to deal with, which overshadows the helpful contributions this book makes to the subject. If you can get past the ego of the author, this book is otherwise quite tremendous.
Sasaki, Fumio. (2017). Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism. W.W. Norton & Company.
For those, like myself, who couldn’t quite handle the animism of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Sasaki’s book presents a refreshingly honest and vulnerable take on the task of getting rid of stuff.
Bogle, John. (2009). Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
You will complete this book with an acute awareness that the financial market mostly does not have your best interest as an investor in mind.
Flanders, Cait. (2018). The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store. Hay House, Inc.
I don’t think I have experienced a shopping addiction quite like this, but it is interesting to hear a first person account of breaking the cycle.
Carver, Courtney. (2017). Soulful Simplicity: How living with less can lead to so much more. Tarcherperigee.
These are books on simplicity, minimalism, and related topics that didn’t very much resonate with me. I list them here, however, to keep a record of my reading and to make note of them for others exploring this domain.
Tatsumi, Nagisa. (2017). The Art of Discarding: How to Get Rid of Clutter and Find Joy.
Kondo, Marie. (2014). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.
I appreciate that this book has been extremely helpful for many people, and I appreciate that it is inspiring in its own quirky way. I personally, however, just can’t bring myself to talk to my socks and house plants, even though I very much agree that it is important to practice gratitude.
Newport, Cal. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing.
This book is based on some underlying assumptions about the nature of ‘careers’ and ‘success’ that I do not share in common. This text is also very much about the success of its author. But with these caveats, it makes compelling arguments for disengaging from social media and nonsense work that is, I estimate, a critical part of simplifying one’s life in today’s world.
Susanka, Sarah. (2007). The not so big life: making room for what really matters. Random House.
I thought the premise of this book was really interesting: Susanka proposes applying the architectural principles of her “Not So Big” house design to personal living and priorities. While there are some interesting thoughts along the way, the book goes sideways — and in my opinion, off the deep end — into forays on dream interpretation and ‘chiropractor wisdom’. Having said this, a person drawn to simple living from a place of intuitive ‘spiritual’ motivation, might find this text helpful.
Bodell, Lisa. (2016). Why Simple Wins: Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to Work That Matters. Routledge.
Interesting consideration of executing simplifying measures within medium to large size companies. Includes discussion of a Simplification Code of Conduct. (Much of the book is written in reference to online PDF tools published in conjunction with the author’s consulting work.)
Palmer, Brooks. (2009). Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back Paperback. New World Library.
Another title that is rather heavy on the hints that the author’s consultancy services are wildly successful.
On the Reading List
Books I am planning on reading…
Schumacher, Ernst Friedrich. (1973). Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. Blond & Briggs.
Meadows, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Randers, Jørgen. & Behrens III, William W. (1972). The Limits to Growth. Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
McNight, John. (1995). The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits. Basic Books.
Elgin, Duane. (1993). Voluntary Simplicity: Toward A Way Of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. HarperCollins.
Carpenter, Edward. (1887). ‘Simplification of Life’ England’s Ideal.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1750). Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1754). Discourse on Inequality.
Powys, John Cowper. (1933). A Philosophy of Solitude.
Sober, Elliott. (2015). Ockham’s Razors. Cambridge University Press.
Gerver, Richard. (2016). Simple Thinking: How to Remove Complexity from Life and Work. John Wiley & Sons.
Botton, Alain de. (2004). Status Anxiety. Hamish Hamilton.
Sardello, Robert. Silence.
LaBier, Douglas. (2016). Modern Madness: The Hidden Link Between Work and Emotional Conflict. Open Road Media.
Your turn… What am I missing? What do I need to read next?