Better Off [NOOK Book]

Overview

What happens when a graduate of MIT, the bastion of technological advancement, and his bride move to a community so primitive in its technology that even Amish groups consider it antiquated?

Eric Brende conceives a real-life experiment: to see if, in fact, all our cell phones, wide-screen TVs, and SUVs have made life easier and better -- or whether life would be preferable without them. By turns, the query narrows down to a single question: What is the least we need to achieve ...

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Better Off

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Overview

What happens when a graduate of MIT, the bastion of technological advancement, and his bride move to a community so primitive in its technology that even Amish groups consider it antiquated?

Eric Brende conceives a real-life experiment: to see if, in fact, all our cell phones, wide-screen TVs, and SUVs have made life easier and better -- or whether life would be preferable without them. By turns, the query narrows down to a single question: What is the least we need to achieve the most? With this in mind, the Brendes ditch their car, electric stove, refrigerator, running water, and everything else motorized or "hooked to the grid" and begin an eighteen-month trial run -- one that dramatically changes the way they live, and proves entertaining and surprising to readers.

Better OFF is a smart, often comedic, and always riveting book that also mingles scientific analysis with the human story, demonstrating how a world free of technological excess can shrink stress -- and waistlines -- and expand happiness, health, and leisure. Our notion that technophobes are backward gets turned on its head as the Brendes realize that the crucial technological decisions of their adopted Minimite community are made more soberly and deliberately than in the surrounding culture, and the result is greater -- not lesser -- mastery over the conditions of human existence.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061738999
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 724,567
  • File size: 1,015 KB

Meet the Author

Eric Brende has degrees from Yale, Washburn University, and MIT, and has received a Citation of Excellence from the National Science Foundation and a graduate fellowship from the Mellon Foundation in the Humanities. At the insistence of his editor, he now has an e-mail account at the local library but continues to minimize modern technology for himself and his family. Eric and Mary Brende have recently relocated to an old-town section in St. Louis, where Eric makes his living as a rickshaw driver and a soap maker.

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Read an Excerpt

Better Off Chapter One
Seeds of Discontent

I used to be as optimistic as anyone about technology. Once asked in grade school to draw a picture of what my home would look like when I grew up, I sketched, in crayon, a transparent hemisphere resting on a single pole and a little flying saucer containing me, my wife, and our many kids about to dock at it. There were exactly eight little heads (besides mine and my wife's) peeking over the rim of the craft, all identical and propagated with the help of a fertility drug.

When I reached my early teens, I never failed to watch an episode of Star Trek, and I read almost every piece of science fiction Isaac Asimov wrote. On our family's first cross-country trip, I became ecstatic when we got caught in a traffic jam on the Oakland Bay Bridge. To a midwestern boy, traffic jams were exotic events in which only special people living in modernistic cities took part.

There was always an undertow to my technological infatuation, however, which at first I was loath to acknowledge. On that trip out west, I spent most of the time carsick. A few years later, after returning to the lazy metropolis of Topeka, Kansas, I began to notice anomalies in the mechanical utopia of our modernized household. After we got an automatic dishwasher, the size of the pile of dirty plates on the countertop didn't decrease at all. If anything, it increased. My dad bought one of the first word processors ever made in the hopes of easing the time and effort of writing. He spent so much time with that machine, I almost never saw him again.

In my grade-school years, the neighborhood seemed alive with children out in the street playing stickball and hide-and-seek. But the older I grew, the more deserted the street became — except for the cars, of course, which had multiplied over time and made playing out-of-doors more perilous. After supper even the cars went into hibernation; the only signs of life were the faint glows cast by cathode ray tubes on living-room blinds.

I had always been on the bashful side, so I went more or less the way of the trend, retreating as determinedly as everyone else to the altar of TV. But lest I surrender utterly to The Void, I applied myself diligently at the piano, practicing several hours a day. To survive socially in a place dominated by the automobile, of course, you had to drive; so I also made an attempt to earn money to buy a car by working at McDonald's. But soon I saw the futility and the irony: in a town whose borders motor vehicles had pushed to the horizons (with a population of 120,000, Topeka covered 50 square miles), the only sensible way to get to my job was by automobile. Until I could afford one, I had to bike the six-mile round trip on busy roads with no shoulders or sidewalks, and I arrived dripping wet. Had I stayed on, I calculated that, like the other workers, I would be working mostly in order to pay for my transportation to work.

What had begun as car sickness in boyhood had developed, by adolescence, into a deeper case of cultural indigestion. It was only when I got to college that I began the attempt to put a name to this, but already the symptoms of the malady — burdensome material inconvenience and social isolation — had become too acute to ignore.

Luckily, my musical diligence paid off, and I got into a good university. There it was exciting to meet other people of similar interests who lived within walking distance. I threw out the sheet music and threw myself into the life of the campus. I joined debating groups. I took up rowing. I made new friends. I dabbled in religion. And in my academic pursuits, I tried to gain some understanding of what was going wrong in Oz.

On a hunch, I signed up for a course in the history of technology. It was an eye-opener. The young professor, Eda Kranakis, capably surveyed the development of wind- and water mills, steam engines, and railroads, and tossed in a graphic description of the inhuman working conditions in nineteenth century factories. She related the tragic tale of the British land enclosure movement, inspired by "scientific farming," which uprooted countless laborers from their hereditary commons in the country and flung them into the cities, where they formed an easily exploited labor pool.

As illuminating as the class was, though, it raised more questions than it answered. Hadn't American society moved beyond the barbarities of Dickensian England (or at least hadn't it subcontracted the dirty work to countries like Mexico)? What was technology's role in the present age? Problems hadn't disappeared; they were just different. But the exponents of public policy remained about as starry-eyed as I had been in grade school. Even the leaders of my elite university accorded every latest gizmo a virtual hero's welcome. Appalled by this mindlessness, I engaged in many heated discussions with classmates. And I wrote an extended research paper for Kranakis, describing the unhealthy side effects associated with sedentary stress and the use of ordinary automated devices. Kranakis liked the paper and encouraged me to develop my ideas.

The conviction was growing in me that the besetting problem was our culture's blindness to the distinction between the tool and the automatic machine. Everyone tended to treat them alike, as neutral agents of human intention. But machines clearly were not neutral or inert objects. They were complex fuel-consuming entities with certain definite proclivities and needs. Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands — for fuel, space, money, and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic ...

Better Off. Copyright © by Eric Brende. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2006

    Not what you think...

    I bought this book initially thinking it would be a book about people who lived 'off the grid'- in harmony with neighbors, but independent of them. Instead, I was disappointed to see how ill-prepared the Brendes were to live without the help of their neighbors- without whom they would have had a very difficult year. It seemed more like reading the 'Secrets of the Innerworkings of the Amish and How I Got Involved' rather than a 'How to Live Indisposably in an Disposable World'. Yes, it talks about what people need and don't need, but he still has a car, access to a phone...... I find that the Author tends to steer off course- it's like reading someone's very LONG Holiday letter- banged out in as short of time possible- rather than an essay of life. If this is what you are interested in reading, then this is the book for you.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2009

    Insightful Look at Living off the Grid

    This book was an interesting read on living off the grid. Earlier in the book, I was a bit frustrated with the the author's approach to living off the grid. The living situation was a rented house from the Amish, and the Amish seemed to take them under their wings, and so I felt it was the easy road for the author's experiment....I guess I was expecting it to be a bit more rustic and challenging. Although I can't say the approach was easy, I think it was definitely an easier route for the author to take. The title of the book gives the impression that we are better off without technology, although the author and his wife in the end make compromises and don't end living life off the grid. An interesting book, but a bit disappointing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2007

    Valuable Insights

    I loved this book. It is written with humor and provides a glimpse into a life many of us will never experience. I was never looking for a 'how-to' manual on off-grid living, so I found this story delightful and personal. I thoroughly enjoyed Brende's insights and find them useful in my daily life as a city dweller.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2007

    A good start

    I enjoyed this book but, like other reviewers, something is missing. For the whole book, I couldn't figure out if Eric and his wife were living authentic Amish people or if there were all sorta Amish people. I would have liked to know more about their day-to-day life and a forcasted time table of events that they were expected to do regarding farming, etc.... I would have wanted to know more abo the values the community held regarding modern medicine and other things. This book definitely does give you some things to think about after you are done reading. How helpful/harmful is all the technology around us? What is the least amount of technology we can live with to still live comfortably but not compromise a sense of community or well-being?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2006

    It Was Good But I Wanted More

    I found the book very interesting, but I kept wondering why didn't the author talk about giving up his dependence on the news or newspapers. I would think that, too, would be very difficult. I also wish he would have given his wife's perspective as told from her to him. There were other issues I wish he had mentioned that he just didn't bring up, so I kindof felt like he really wasn't telling us the whole story. Still his message was clear and one I tend to agree with.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2014

    Do not buy or read

    Very very very very very very very bad.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2009

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    Posted August 24, 2009

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    Posted August 8, 2009

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    Posted December 15, 2009

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