There’s much to be said for a minimalist lifestyle.
It keeps your mind and house empty of useless clutter, it allows you to travel light, and it permits you an indulgent smirk whenever you see friends clinging to an attic full of junk they’ll die before they ever get to sifting through.
On those matters, I’m with the minimalist brigade. If you want an easier life, use and spend less.
But there’s also an obsessive side to minimalism. There is the hardcore crowd, who live by the religious maxim of “whatever can be gotten rid of ought to be gotten of”.
This cult of uber-minimalists loathe the very idea of even witnessing a cluster of tangible objects, however organised – they balk at a library of physical books, a collection of DVD’s or a beloved assemblage of pet rocks.
“Books can be digitized!” they scream. “DVD’s can be torrented or streamed on Netflix!” they mutter under their oxygen-saving breath. “Why, if it’s collections of gems and minerals you’re after, you can browse them at your leisure any time with a simple Google Image Search” they advise patronisingly to the bearded rock-fetishist (of course he has a beard).
And that’s where I realise, that, much as I love the idea, I’m far less ideologically aligned with the minimalist crowd than I like to believe.
My Struggle With Minimalism
I’ll admit, I have a dog in this fight.
My one obsessive addiction is a bibliophila that has grown rapidly since the age of eighteen. What was once an impressive shelf or two of modern classics now boasts its own sub-sections in Literary Criticism, 20th Century American Fiction, Popular Science, and Romantic Poetry. I’m essentially a Barnes & Noble that doesn’t sell, a library that never loans (only because I know you’ll never give it back).
Is my life hamstrung by this collection of air-hogging books? One might be tempted to think so, particularly now the room taken up by these clunky bricks now well-exceeds the modest shelf space I originally carved out for their display.
Yet, the excess of books I’ve now acquired doesn’t lead me to the impulse of getting rid of them. In fact, it leads to me to the opposite conclusion: I need more space to store them.
Dogmatic vs. Value Minimalism
I don’t believe my book collection is against the tenets of minimalism. I actually think it’s compatible with it. It’s just a matter of what brand of minimalism you endorse.
The minimalists I describe above are what I think of as “Dogmatic Minimalist” – This minimalism says “Do Not Keep That Which Takes Up Space”. They are fundamental and religious in their commitment to bare walls and scantily populated wardrobes.
In the eyes of the Dogmatic Minimalist, all physical books are Dirty Space Thieves (yes, that’s also an intergalactic porno title) that long since should have died with the advent of the Kindle and other e-reading devices.
The minimalism I want to advocate though is a “Value Minimalism”. This adopts the slogan: “Do Not Keep That Which Offers No Value Or Pleasure”.
See, the problem is, my book library does offer a ton of value (especially since my academic life requires me to look up a particular quote or pen-marking I made six months ago), and it offers its own special pleasure, even for the books I rarely pick up. I don’t have time here to explain why, since to do so would only lead me to parrot Ryan Holiday’s excellent article defending his personal ownership of umpteen physical books.
Every time I enter a house and am greeted by a shelf of classics or a carefully curated collection of movies I never feel inclined to wince at wasted space. What makes me wince is seeing garages or attics, or entire ‘spare rooms’ wasted, having been loaded with rotting clothes, junk wires in piles from outdated electrical devices – essentially a heap of crap sitting in boxes, never to be used or thought of again. This is where people need a heavy dose of minimalist philosophy.
See, at its core, it’s important to remember that minimalism is only what philosophers call an instrumental good. It is only useful in so far as it leads to other valuable goods. Getting rid of certain objects is only good when it cleanses – when it brings freedom, peace of mind, more space to move and live, and a liberation from the material junk a lifetime of impulse buys and hoarding leave human beings steeped in.
But minimalism by itself has no intrinsic value. The bare wall that has nothing to say for itself is not inherently superior to a collage of beautiful photographs that encapsulate a life spent collecting and treasuring memories.
Remember this any time you enter a minimalist bedroom expunged of everything but a bed and a MacBook and are tempted to swoon at the owner’s monk-like commitment to economy of possession. It could indicate that this is the abode of a truly Zen minimalist master, who requires nothing but the bare essentials to get through the day. But it’s also possible that this steadfast commitment to nothing at all may be masking its own brand of laziness – a kind of non-committal lack of interest that relieves them of any character or personality.
It’s your call: just be careful not to confuse a clear mind with an empty one.