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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (P.S.) Paperback – August 2, 2005

4 out of 5 stars 111 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

About a decade ago, Brende was pursuing a graduate degree at MIT by studying technology's influence on society, and he reached conclusions that disturbed both him and his faculty mentors. A chance encounter with a "black-hatted man" prompted Brende and his new wife to move to a religious, "Mennonite-type" community that in many respects makes the Amish seem worldly, where he hoped to pare his environment down to "a baseline of minimal machinery" that could sustain human comfort while allowing him to stay off the power grid. (Details about the community, which Brende dubs the "Minimites" in recognition of their austerity, are left intentionally vague so as to preserve their privacy.) The pervasive back-to-basics sentiment will surprise few familiar with others who work this vein, like Bill McKibben and Kirkpatrick Sale, but Brende's nostalgia for a simpler way of life is far from rabid. His rough prose honestly addresses how neighbors in his new community could graciously offer help yet warily view Brende as an intruder; Brende himself was particularly sensitive to perceived slights, and the radical lifestyle shift created a unique set of strains on his new marriage. Though the ending feels a bit rushed, his gentle case for simple living will easily resonate with the converted and may inspire skeptics to grapple more intimately with the issue.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–An undergraduate course in the history of technology led Brende to enroll in a graduate program at M.I.T. that contemplated the social effects of machines on human life. He then decided to test his idea that the more advanced the machine, the bigger the downside, by moving to the country to farm and live cheaply without electricity for 18 months. This is not a back-to-the-land book on how to dig a root cellar; rather, it's the Brendes' experiences on the farm they rented. He and his wife soon discovered a natural rhythm to their lives that had been missing in Boston and that they both found deeply satisfying. It seemed as if they'd stay permanently, but when they got rid of the car in favor of a horse and buggy, it turned out that Brende's wife was allergic to horses. By this time, the experiment had confirmed the author's thinking about the harm technology does to humans and society and that machines are becoming our masters. His curiosity about how much he could transfer of what he had learned to the "outside" world, plus his wife's allergy, led them to move to another undisclosed location–a small town outside a Midwestern city–where they were able to live simply, albeit with electricity, and survive, even thrive, on odd jobs, bartering, and soap-making. Brende's close look at technology's generally unnoticed harmful effects is a welcome relief from the usual how-to-get-ahead-in-the-rat-race attitude. Thoughtful teens will find much to contemplate here.–Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: P.S.
  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (August 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060570059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060570057
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #159,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Other reviewers have summarized this book so I'll just make a few comments.

This book really draws you in and lets you share the life they live without technology. He minimizes discussions of theology, for which I was thankful. I am hoping to change my life in ways that will give me more time and mastery over my life rather than my modern life which in some ways has mastery over me. I love books which present an alternative way of living- I can learn from their mistakes and also pick out the best parts to put together to make a new life.

I also wanted to mention that I did not get the anti-woman impression that the other feminist reviewer did. I don't know that I call myself a feminist but I certainly am a woman who identifies with many of their beliefs. As far as I could tell he treated his wife with respect and I think that showed in the telling of the story. He made if clear that this adventure was something that he wanted more than she did, and that after the 18 months were over it would be her choice what to do next. When he mentioned Mary gabbing with the neighbors, he mentioned that he did too. In the previous paragraph for example, he had mentioned that he spent a half-hour every time he made a photocopy because he had to catch up on the news in town. In the section on childbirth, he just tries to balance the dangers of home birth (they had three midwives plus a doctor stopped by) with the dangers of hospital births (hospital infections, 1 out of 3 births in boston hospitals is by cesarean).

In summary, it's a wonderful book if you like books which let you explore someone else's life. If you are overwhelmed by how much you pay (in time and money) for technologies like car upkeep and power tools, you might even learn a thing or two.
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Format: Hardcover
If you're considering purchasing this book, keep in mind, it's quite brief. I would have liked more depth and detail with regards to the physical challenges of his 18 months with the "Minimites". I was reading this book in the hopes of actually learning something about living a low-tech lifestyle, but Eric chose to focus more on the emotional impact the lifestyle had on himself and his wife, and he spent a large part of the story giving brief portrayals of his neighbors in the community.

What Eric does provide is certainly not bad. I enjoyed the diversity of the neighborhood around him, and I did like the basic theme of the book - when people are brought together under the auspices of labor, a true sense of community is obtained and the work itself is all but forgotten. I just didn't feel that this short read (a very fast reading 256 pages) provided the depth I was looking for.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What makes this such an interesting book is a variety of things. First off the author is MIT educated, Catholic and willing along with his new wife to try an experiment. Live with as little technology as possible for over a year, maybe two. True, they do not go cold turkey, because they do own a car which they keep and use for over a year. But considering the way they grew up and lived, going sans indoor plumbing, regular washer and dryer, cook stove, refrigerator, computer, telephone is a huge cultural shock for someone. Especially if its a way of life and not simply a break from the regular world.

Loved reading how they struggled to shed the small issues like sleeping in, or taking naps when the work became so hard and the heat outside to hot. Interesting reading how they dealt with work, cooking, canning food, using an old wringer washer that required hauling water, heating it etc. Same with taking a hot bath. Hot summers and something as simple as moving the bed layout and opening windows for a cross breeze.

Or the work of planting enough pumpkins and sorghum to sell to at least meet expenses. Learning how to use a horse drawn plow and harvester. Rasing chickens and swine for food and all that is involved with culling them and preserving what one grows so one can survive and eat during the non productive winter months.

Then having a baby at home and incorporating washing diapers, late night feedings, with keeping the homestead going on less sleep. Dealing with squabbles that were about her sewing away and he's hungry from working all day, yet nothing has been cooked for dinner.

Was pleased to read his defense if you will of the women who co-own and run a family homestead which is what the Amish and many Mennonites do.
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Format: Hardcover
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology is the story of how a young man and his wife embark upon a journey that at heart is straight out of Thoreau's Walden. Ostensibly, Mr. and Mrs. Brende are seeking a refuge, however temporary, from modernity. What they in fact are doing is more serious: they report back, they are sending us their findings--which is what Thoreau understood Emerson to be saying in his essay on "Self-Reliance": Leave the hurly-burly behind. Clear your head. Come back and tell us what the air is like. Life among the "Minimites" is Brende's addendum to what is by now something of a long-standing tradition (Letters From an American Farmer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; On the Road) in American Literature.

The idea that anyone today might have reservations about our over-reliance on technology is not itself new; others have been down this road before. But rarely has it been done with such grace and sensitivity. The story begins at MIT, where our narrator (Brende), while working toward his Ph.D., is trying to come to grips with a burgeoning realization that the indiscriminate use of technology exacts a price, and that for some people, that price--a dilution of what might be called the 'joy' we humans can feel when we work with our hands--is indeed a steep price to pay. In Better Off, Brende demonstrates, by putting the gloves on and doing the work himself (under the watchful and often wry eyes of his 'Minimite' friends and neighbors), that we have more control over the technological choices we make in life than most of us ever come to understand, and that there are things we can do to regain some of those old feelings we have lost at the hands of machines.

Better Off is exceedingly well-written.
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