Food. Toiletries. Light bulbs. A few pairs of shoes for the kids. How much other stuff does a family truly need in one year?
That question – and the consumption of household items in general – is the focus of a new book of essays by Evanston writer (and RoundTable contributor) Susannah Q. Pratt. The book, More or Less: Essays from a Year of No Buying, takes the reader along on the Pratt family’s experience of “no buying” during 2018.
This “no buying” that the Pratts did for a year was optional, a voluntary exercise in reacting to all the stuff in their lives and their house. But the author is clear that her family is fortunate to have had this option, and that “when going without is not optional, things look different.”
In several essays Pratt discusses other literature related to the general subject of cutting back, making do with less, and living more simply. From Ann Pachett’s New York Times article “My Year of No Shopping” to Thoreau’s Walden, Pratt is mindful of how her family’s commitment is not unique.
Her goal of buying less is idealistic: “Imagine what it might mean for the distribution of resources if those of us with plenty could learn to say, ‘Thanks, we have enough.’ It might mean less plastic in the ocean. It could deliver a serious blow to white privilege. Nothing less is at stake.”
And she has a practical side. As the chief organizer of her family’s stuff (as most women are, she notes), she assigns herself the right to comment on the implications for her time. The stuff in her house takes a lot of time to buy, locate, organize, clean, fix and/or dispose of, and it is most often her time.
Pratt also focuses on the sentimental importance of household items. She notes that some stuff may be imbued with positive memories or associations. This raises its own set of challenges. Stuff that brings comfort is hard to discard.
The essays – which have apt titles like “Buying Big Bird” and “Banished to the Basement” – are personal, observational, succinct and witty. While she treats this effort to pare down the stuff in her family’s life as a serious subject, parts of the book are very funny. On the subject of disposability, for example, she recounts the mixed experiences of many parents whose children now take their lunches to school in reusable containers. The increasing use of reusable containers is a positive development, but one which results in the return of parts of the original lunch items, as well as “unrecognizable wads of food we didn’t pack to begin with.”
Pratt considers her day-to-day decisions about why she buys what she does. She searches for the motivations behind some purchases. She suspects that she is not alone in finding that clicking “buy now” gives her a sense of accomplishment. It’s easy to underestimate the pleasure people get from buying.
The timing of the Pratt family’s year of “no buying,” just before the pandemic, gave Pratt the chance to devote her last essay to her family’s return to purchasing lots of stuff during their time at home in 2020. The essay “Prime Days” justifies the many reasons for buying stuff during the pandemic.
Pratt’s appealing book raises this question: Should a potential reader buy it, thus adding it to the stuff in their house, or get it from the library? The author might prefer that readers buy it. How about a compromise: Buy it, read it, then give it to a friend.
Ellen—I’d happily borrow it from you!