REVIEW: Better Off
Less is more
A student of technology journeys back to the land

Reviewed by Jake Vail


Better Off: Flipping the switch on technology

Eric Brende, HarperCollins, 2004; ISBN 0-060570-04-0; $24.95; 233 pp.

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October 14, 2004: As it happened – as it was meant to happen – I’d just finished rereading Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s fable of science and technology gone awry, when Eric Brende’s Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology arrived in the mail.

“Busy, busy, busy,” as they say in Vonnegut’s book when contemplating mysterious things going on.

Better Off is a young couple’s agrarian journey through 18 months without electricity and the techno-gizmos that are so much a part of our lives. Truth be told, when this book first hit the stands I gave it a brief look and moved on. Something of a Luddite who explored Henry Thoreau, Jacques Ellul, Jerry Mander, Leo Marx, and their ilk years ago, I regarded another back-to-the-garden book a little skeptically. (Note: If Luddite is a term with which you are unfamiliar, get this book.) But recall what they say about judging books by their covers. This is really an engaging travel book.

According to Vonnegut, peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. Brende follows some peculiar travel suggestions offered by a stranger on a bus, and proves to be a nimble dancer. After a few pages describing his time as a student at MIT, the author and his new bride pack up and move from the electric atmosphere of the Institute of Technology to an unplugged community in the hills of – well, he won’t tell us.

The community members – cleverly termed “Minimites” by the author – understandably want to keep themselves from the cover of People magazine, but including more details of the complexities of a simpler life would have made this story better. Perhaps the style is directed toward an audience who know nothing of agrarian experiences beyond “Green Acres” reruns and watching Paris Hilton pose for American Gothic. But for those who know a little of farming or who live on the rural side, the holes in the fabric of Better Off are as moth holes in a wool sweater. Likewise, one will find neither index nor bibliography nor suggested readings. Brende does mention a few sources of inspiration, but I expect readers would welcome more.

As it happened – as it was meant to happen – this morning a baker friend told me a story about an apparent flaw in a bread oven design. Further investigation proved it to be, in fact, not a design flaw but a symptom of a loss of cultural knowledge. Practically as soon as the Brendes start their life off the grid their neighbors help them to grasp such distinctions, and the importance of handed down wisdom -- the prerequisites to which, we learn alongside them, are community and humility.

In Cat’s Cradle, a scientist’s son proclaims, “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and… No damn cat. No damn cradle.” Science isn’t what it claims to be. As terrible and as global as Vonnegut’s apocalyptic ice nine, the reductive way science encourages us to think freezes our senses and sensibilities. The Minimite community is informed by this awareness, and its actions are deliberated and deliberate.

We quickly learn that Better Off is neither an anti-technological screed nor a how-to book. No damn cat. No damn cradle. Counter to its advertising spin, it is a story – very nearly a mythic hero’s tale, complete with an earnest and inquisitive young man, beasts to tame, violent storms, physical hardship, dead ends, moral searching, love, sex, epiphanies, and a sort of homecoming.

Thus Brende spends more time acquainting us with the thoughtful members of the community than he does discussing technology or the practice of living where technology’s level is appropriate. The ghost of Ned Ludd hovers past only briefly. Instead, we chase calves, hoe the pumpkins, raise barns, frolic in the swimmin’ hole, and attend church service. We get to know the Minimites, and gradually we see how their humble and unhurried life might indeed leave us better off.

Better Off carries us across seasons literal and figurative: planting, growing, and harvesting. When our heroes pull up to their picturesque and well-tended new digs, the sun breaks through the clouds and birds sing. Time slows and expands. We enter a relaxed and almost jovial world of hand-powered washing machines and horse-drawn cultivators, where mowing the grass leads unavoidably to waxing philosophical. Embarrassing mistakes are remedied or headed off at the pass by friendly neighbors who seem to show up at just the right time. (Well, except for that lazy afternoon when the doors were inadvertently left open….)

Seeds are soon planted. As in any garden, times of exhausting activity alternate with times of rest and rumination. The plot thickens. Weeds grow between the pumpkins, and secrets grow among the Minimites. Not all is cider and roses after all, but the Brendes make it through an abundant harvest time swimmingly. The two emerge from their odyssey as three.

Oddly, I sensed some bittersweet relief when their self-imposed deadline passed and the Brendes drove back into the fast lane. Fear not, they haven’t entirely abandoned the Minimite Way, but the book’s abashed final third points to another lesson, which I think the author realizes: the importance of digging in. As much as slowing down and pulling the plugs, living better on the land leaves us better off.

© Jake Vail 2004, Jake Vail is a librarian, arborist, and member of The Land Institute’s Prairie Writer’s Circle. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.