Book Review: Fewer, Better Things by Glenn Adamson
June 30, 2020
I bought Fewer, Better Things at my local art center based solely on the title. (I’ve purchased more than one book based solely on its cover photo, too. So much for not judging a book by its cover.)
I’ll admit the book isn’t quite what I was expecting, in that it delves much deeper into the history of craft and the curation of things than I anticipated. Had I read the author description, I’d have seen that Glenn Adamson is “Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and works across the fields of design, craft, and contemporary art.” And that he was also the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. I’d still have bought the book, but I’d not have been surprised that it’s a bit academic. (Although it’s loosely structured — imagine the musings of someone with serious experience with the topic.)
So it’s not a quick read, but that’s a good thing, I think. There’s plenty to digest and, taken slowly, there are gems to be found along the way. Adamson certainly delivers on his underlying premise that our relationship to the objects in our world deserves attention.
While he contrasts the value of teddy bears with cell phones and digital tablets for children, Adamson doesn’t dismiss technology as lacking serious value. But he points out that, as a culture, we know and care less about the objects in our world than we used to. He shows us how a variety of materials are made, including plywood, aluminum, and linoleum. He explores a Japanese tea ceremony and fabrication technologies. And he introduces us to a wide range of craftpersons, including a basket maker; carvers of wood, stone and coconuts; a sandal maker; and a space architect. In doing so, he underlines an appreciation of craft and laments our declining material intelligence, which he defines as “a deep understanding of the material world around us, an ability to read that material environment, and the know-how to give it new form.”
Fewer, Better Things leaves the reader more thoughtful about the aesthetics of objects in our surroundings and what it takes to make them. Some readers may even be inspired to learn a craft. That’s not to say you need to know how to build a cabinet before you can buy one, of course. But an understanding of craft encourages more a thoughtful choice and appreciation of the cabinet. I took pottery classes in college and, while I never did master using a wheel, that experience enhances my enjoyment of handcrafted pottery. I can make a quilt (much more proficiently than I can throw a pot), and let me tell you, that perspective gives me a great appreciation of every handmade quilt I meet.
The book is blanketed in a concern for both the enrichment of life and sustainability of the environment. “We have to encourage different patterns of desire,” Adamson explains, “ones which are sustainable. On the most fundamental level, this is what I’m advocating: Let’s have many fewer objects in our lives and care much more about them. It’s ultimately a way of caring about one another.”
Let us know what you think of the book, and please recommend other books to the C2K community!
You might also like: Attainable Sustainable, the lost art of self-reliant living, by Kris Bordessa