You know what they say about books. The first rule you learn, before you even learn to read. Don’t judge them by their cover! I’ll freely admit I have been flagrantly guilty of this in the past. That’s how I found one of my favorites and a true gem, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It’s a nice shade of gray-blue. But I digress. The point I’m getting at is, working here at the Library for the Blind, I don’t come into contact with many book covers. I just read the titles. So naturally I’ve transferred my prejudice, for better or for worse, onto catchy titles.
That’s how I came across The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen. This title’s just got so much going on. Word play, first of all, to take the name of the early immigrants who first “settled” this land, but changing it to the opposite of their name, implying a contrast to something about their process, which is also a word that is synonymous with an upset, trouble, unbalance, agitation. Ah, agitators. My type of people. Also: a quest. I love a good quest. I’m typically a reader of fiction, and my success with non-fiction has been… not. I equate fiction with plot, and non-fiction with… not! But the “search” in this title leads me to believe there’s something missing, we’re looking for it, and dare-I-guess: we might even find it? It’s like a non-fiction mystery! And lastly, the ever-relevant and elusive topic of what exactly is “the good life” in this world we live in today. I ask myself this question daily. I discuss it with my family, my friends and my community weekly. It’s the topic of an impressive amount of literature, entertainment and advertising, whether explicitly or implicitly.
And how about the content of this piece of work? It met, and exceeded, my expectation of the title. The Unsettlers is a creatively crafted piece of investigative journalism with a noticeable amount of heart and soul, not to mention time, poured into it. Mark Sundeen, fueled by his own search for the modern day American “Good Life”, traveled around our country by car, bus, and bike, searching for examples of ethical, consumption-reducing and sustainable lifestyles as alternatives to the modern-day mainstream lifestyles. Sundeen delves into the lives and livelihoods of 3 families currently attempting to live radically “off the grid” and “simple lifestyles”. As you’ll learn from his subjects, the follow-through of the “simple life” is a complex, lifelong commitment and choice that one makes every day, and takes an enormous amount of effort and intention.
The passion of his three subjects—the organic-farming-social-justice-Quaker-anti-fossil-fuels Possibility Alliance in North East Missouri, an urban garden in Detroit, and an organic garden homestead in Montana—comes through with his poetic descriptions of their connection to their work which is their lives, and the philosophies that led them each to commit to it. In the three sections, Sundeen illustrates the trials and tribulations of the families in their “searches” as well as his own search for a satisfying yet sustainable lifestyle.
He introduces two influential predecessors and philosophers on the subject and its importance, and you’ll notice a nod to their titles in his:
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
by Wendell Berry
Published in 1977, this book details the changes in American farming culture as well as agricultural law, and makes the case for environmentalism in agriculture as well as personal responsibility in American consumption culture as a whole.
The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self Sufficient Living
by Helen and Scott Nearing
Part philosophy and part manual, this book describes the homesteading lifestyle of New Yorkers gone to Vermont in order to pursue a life on the land connected to their home, their food, their work and their community. They left the urban life in 1932 and continued in this pursuit for 60 years and are said to be inspirations for many 20th century American back-to-the-land movements.
Yes, believe it or not, these are more non-fiction books, and I’m reading them both now.