Book review: Simple Abundance


There are some books you can sit down and write a smashing, relevant review about instantly upon finishing reading them.

Pam's book is one of those, as is Chris and Julien's. Whether or not I learn something new from them (and I did with both books), these kinds of books cover topics I know well enough to recognize that they'll be outrageously useful to someone coming to them for the first time: they're the kinds of books I wish I'd had at the beginning of my odysseys in self-employment and the social web, respectively.

Likewise, it's a fairly straightforward proposition to review a work of fiction or a biography or a memoir once I'm done. Not easy, necessarily, but simple: did I like it or didn't I, and why? I might write a slightly different review after a re-read years down the road, deeper, more nuanced, with additional insights, but it's unlikely that my opinion will fundamentally change (assuming that I'm ingesting the book with the requisite knowledge for basic comprehension the first time around. Or it hasn't happened so far.)

Books of prescriptives are a little harder to review wholeheartedly because, like products and services and classes, their true value often isn't apparent until way after the fact of consumption. The Artist's Way is a perfect example of this. It's an outstanding book, and perfect for a certain type of person seeking a certain kind of self-knowledge. But I wouldn't have been able to endorse it until years after the fact (and as someone who does it so frequently now, I'm overdue to write a formal review). Getting Things Done is another one. While the lights go on as you read it if you're the Right Audience for David Allen's great but really complex system, only implementation and time will tell if it's good for you.

Two things have come up recently that have me looking hard at books I've not only read, but consumed, and that have proven useful to me. It's easy, perilously so, to forget once you've trod the ground and moved on to other things how intensely you struggled with something when first you ran hard up against it. (Walking, anyone? Or omelet-making? Or driving stick?)

The first thing is the preponderance of talk in the air about decluttering or paring down or what have you. Maybe it's the economy, maybe it's a function of acceleration, but all of a sudden the zeitgeist seems to have shifted from acquiring stuff or organizing all the stuff we've acquired to getting rid of it. My new friend Lisa Sonora Beam and I were just talking yesterday about how the stuff, once gone, seems to let the ideas and emotions flow more easily (not to mention remove a lot of worry about dusting and insuring and suchlike). Andy Dick, of all people, was on Adam Carolla's podcast talking about getting rid of all his beautiful stuff and moving into an Airstream trailer in his ex's backyard to spend more time with his kids. (It's an especially good episode, by the way; check it out.)

I'll write a separate post about that at some point, perhaps, but let me say this about the simplification books: almost without exception, you should not buy a book on simplifying, at first. Even Leo, who wrote a really terrific book about the power of less and supports his family with his writing is with me on this: he gives his book away for free. Buying a thing to solve your problem with acquiring things is like cracking open a beer to troubleshoot your drinking problem: might feel good in the moment, but is getting you further from, not closer to your goal.

The second thing is how many people I'm hearing who are looking, looking, looking for meaning, at all points in the trajectory. Because I'm sorry to be the one to break this to you, but it's an ongoing thing, the looking, looking, looking. I've gotten much closer than I ever thought I'd be pre-Crohn's onset, and off-the-charts close compared to head-up-my-ass, ad whore me, wandering the streets of Westwood, filled with falafel and inchoate longing.

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, was one of my guidebooks out of that particular hell of inchoate longing. It's an agnostic prayer book of sorts, a volume of 365 daily exercises, thought- or action-based, to lead you from some kind of confusion to some kind of clarity. Honestly, I think that almost anything done methodically and incrementally can be a tonic: a photo a day, a page a day, a walk around the neighborhood a day. (Probably not a beer a day, but don't quote me on that.) Bringing yourself back to the same activity lets you loop around the mountain again and again, slowly and deliberately, slowing you down and giving time and space for truth to bubble up and patterns to emerge.

The value of Simple Abundance at that particular point in my life was its gentleness and softness. I am (still) given to handling myself with a certain brusqueness: my shrink says I suffer from a chronic lack of entitlement, which is not humility (that's a nice thing that requires softness and awareness) but a brutality mindset. And the world doesn't need me being a brute any more than I do. It was, come to think of it, really humiliating (or at least humbling) at times, working the Simple Abundance book. Certainly I felt like a Class A jackass, and kept that sucker hidden away from sight like it was super-kinky p0rn. It got me where I needed to go, though, and, FOR ME, was a perfect follow-up to The Artist's Way. Or maybe prelude, honestly, it was so long ago, I can't remember.

While it's been in print a long, long time and has many adherents, it may not be for you. It's very fluffy-cozy-precious-tea, if you catch my drift. The cover is pink! With scrolly stuff! Before plunking down your hard-earned money, you should definitely page through it in the store, or at least peek inside on the Amazon page. And read the 1- and 2-star and 3-star reviews as well as the 4- and 5-star ones (that's a good rule of thumb in general, if you're not doing it already. You'll learn more from the full scope of reviews than you will the gushing ones).

There are lots of copies available used, as well. Perhaps there are a lot of haters out there, or perhaps, like me, it's a journey you only want to take once. For a while, I'd buy up a copy whenever I came across it in the field, then give it away when I came across someone who needed it.

Here's the thing: if it speaks to you, even if you're a hardass and embarrassed by the speaking, go ahead and get it. Put it in a plain brown slipcover and lock it away in a secret cupboard, if you have to, but do it. We hardasses need to do tricky end-runs around ourselves with some of this self-improvement stuff, but we need to do it. Because your hardass gifts are of severely limited use to anyone if they're not tempered by a little softness and understanding. And I'm here to tell you now, they will turn on you at some point if you don't stay the (gentle) boss of them.


Image by Tom@HK via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.