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Review of "Goodbye, Things"

By Fumio Sasaki
W. W. Norton, 2017
Review by Christian Perring on Jun 27th 2017
Goodbye, Things

In Goodbye, Things, described as a "bestseller" in Japan, Fumio Sasaki describes a minimalist lifestyle and argues that it can lead to a much happier life. Apparently minimalism is now popular in Japan. While it has not become so popular in the USA, it has some adherents. The basic idea is very simple: we become able to focus on what we really value when we get rid of all the things that distract us and occupy our time. We can live in tiny little spaces with no more possessions than we are able to remember. Then we can spend our time with friends and loved ones engaging in meaningful activity.

Sasaki has nothing more than testimonials and anecdote to support his claim that minimalism will make one happier. There is certainly a lot to be said for the idea from common sense. The fewer possessions we have, the less we have to worry about losing them and looking after them. We don't have to spend our time cleaning them or carrying them around from place to place when we move. We also do not need to spend so much time in jobs we don't like to earn money to pay to buy new things or to store the things we have.

Of course, many of us are, if not complete hoarders, definitely on the hoarding spectrum. I have definitely had piles of old vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, VHS videos, and books, books, books. As a book review editor and a professor, I have all sorts of reasons to have them. But I can testify that in the last decade, I've worked on steadily getting rid of all these things. I know how hard it is, and I haven't been completely successful. But once you get in the right frame of mind, it gets easier. A great deal of Goodbye, Things is actually about this process of being able to part with treasured possessions. It seems like good advice. His explanation of how he parted with objects such as mementos of his dead mother are particularly striking.

Sasaki says that he has got rid about 95% of his possessions. This of course boggles the mind. We can maybe imagine reducing our possessions by some fraction, maybe 10%, conceivably 25%, but 95% seems unimaginable, at least at first. Sasaki's detailed description of how he did it is both amazing and inspiring. It is relevant that he is a single man -- one wonders how families with children could be minimalist, when children seem to want lots of things. He doesn't address this issue, which presumably leaves a space in the publishing world for a follow-up book.

If you talk to academics about reducing their book collection, they typically react as if you are suggesting cutting off limbs. The same is true for many people who collect objects for their hobbies. I have lived with people who were pretty high on the hoarding spectrum, and filled rooms with objects to the extent it made life much more difficult for them and those who lived with them. Naturally, this causes conflict. Again, Sasaki's recommendations are purely about how to make changes in one's own life, and not about how to encourage others to change. Once you take on his point of view though, it seems that just about everyone is a hoarder, irrationally clinging on to objects they never need.

As you would expect, Goodbye, Things is itself a minimal book. The unabridged audiobook takes just 4.5 hours in a rather earnest but very consistent performance by Keith Szarabajka. The suggestions for how to accomplish a minimalist life are somewhat useful if one lives alone, and they don't take that long to set out. Sasaki's gives lots of recommendations, and they won't apply equally to everyone. Given that he has very little evidence that this really is a path to happiness, it's good that he keeps it short. In fact, some of his suggestions are quite far-fetched, given that many people do seem to get genuine pleasure from having thing. His assumption that having lots of things is a hindrance to happiness is implausible. But there must be some kernel of insight in what he is saying, and reading the book may help readers get reassess how important all their possessions really are to them.

The hardcover has some nice photographs at the start illustrating the living spaces of some minimalists. There is a video of Sasaki showing his apartment here.

 

© 2017 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring has been told more than once that he could get rid of some stuff without losing anything important.

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