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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

3.63  ·  Rating Details ·  2,030 Ratings  ·  399 Reviews
What is the least we need to achieve the most? With this question in mind, MIT graduate Eric Brende flipped the switch on technology. He and his wife, Mary, ditched their car, electric stove, refrigerator, running water, and everything else motorized or "hooked to the grid," and spent eighteen months living in a remote community so primitive in its technology that even the ...more
Paperback, 234 pages
Published August 2nd 2005 by Harper Perennial (first published 2004)
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Bright by H.D. KnightleyIn Praise of Slowness by Carl HonoréBetter Off by Eric BrendeA Reasonable Life by Ferenc MátéKnight of the Purple Ribbon by Jennifer Leigh Wells
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Community Reviews

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I really wanted to like this book, but it was painfully written and the author comes across as a jerk.

It's a decent premise: A man and woman decide to live off the grid for 18 months: no car, no electricity, no cell phones, and no refrigerator. Eric Brende and his new wife arranged to rent a room in an Amish-type community and adopt an agrarian lifestyle.

Generally I enjoy these kinds of project memoirs, but Brende's writing style was too florid, and he is not a good storyteller. He kept skippin
Aug 30, 2007 Jo rated it it was ok
While it had an interesting premise, it didn't come close to living up to my expectations. A naive city boy decides to go "off the grid" for a year, but rather than try it on his own (a la Helen and Scott Nearing), he throws in the kitsch of moving into a community of religious folks akin to the Amish or Mennonites. He drags along some chick he knows (and marries for whatever reason) and spends 200 pages poorly documenting their experience. The style was bland and tedious, though the story could ...more
Dec 06, 2007 Thomas rated it it was ok
A good concept - one of those silly experiment for a year, back to nature books - that was pretty frustrating in the end. Very little about the actual work involved in living on an off-the-grid farm, and a terrible relationship with his wife where she was essentially disregarded throughout the book, made it much less good than I would like it to be. Sure, it made me more interested in living off the grid and growing my own food and not having a car - but I don't think I'd want to live in the ...more
Jun 11, 2007 Anna rated it did not like it
I didn't finish it. The author took a potentially interesting subject and ruined it with trite, cloying, overwriting. His descriptions of his girlfriend/wife are totally ridiculous/insulting/annoying. Dude sounds like a boring jerk, the worst kind.
Aug 02, 2009 Ryan rated it did not like it
This book fails on almost every level possible. Author Eric Brende's poorly-executed experiment in simple living results in a boring, oft-insulting, and almost non-informative record about his time in an anabaptist community.

I wanted to like this book. The premise seemed simple and charming: take a person out of the typical 20th century American lifestyle and test their ability to live and work in a quasi-Amish community. But Mr. Brende manages to dodge every opportunity to provide actual insigh
Lisa Lewis
Jul 16, 2011 Lisa Lewis rated it it was ok
I have recently learned that this kind of book is called "stunt nonfiction." The stunt, in this case, was author Brende and his wife living in an Amish-like community for 18 months and writing a book about it. The idea was to explore Brende's mixed feelings about technology by trying out life with little or no modern conveniences. It was all a little pat: their supportive community helped them avoid any real suffering as they learned how to live off the land, their experiences were almost ...more
Mar 03, 2013 Ensiform rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The author, a graduate of Yale and MIT, moved with his newlywed wife to an Amish-like community (that he calls “Minimites”) and lived for eighteen months with no electricity or running water. They plowed their field and grew and sold crops, helped the Minimites (but much less than they got help from the community, of course), and learned about themselves.

Brende has written a fairly interesting book about the experience. As Jon Krakauer said in a blurb, he certainly does not come off as a “sancti
May 20, 2011 Jody rated it it was ok
I'm an easy audience to please when it comes to 'this is what I did for one year' accounts. I love reading about these forays into completely different worlds and how the author was affected. Heck, someone could write a book about "a year of living off tag sales" and I'd pick it up. So, given that I'm a target audience for this book, I came out of it questioning the author more than enjoying his journey from the MIT campus into an Amish-like existence. (He never names the community he joins 'out ...more
May 13, 2010 Erika rated it really liked it
Better Off is as close to a contemporary 'Walden' as I've come across. And it's author, Eric Brende, is the real deal. This Yale, Washburn, and MIT grad is an expert on the interaction of society and technology. As part of his graduate research, he (and his new bride) takes a sabbatical to live among and study the lifestyle of an Old Order Anabaptist community that limits their use of technology. What he discovers there is told with excellent, evocative writing. With themes like the value of ...more
Jan 16, 2009 John rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 22, 2009 Erin rated it it was ok
Man, this guy is an insufferable prick! That would be my first impression of this book. The second would be that it is false advertising. Just from the cover blurbs, and the description on the back, I was expecting some kind of scientific study that showed how to live on zero net watts, meaning they used some kind of alternative energy source to offset electricity use or something. As a scientist, this kind of thing would have interested me. However, this is not what the book was about. And in ...more
Ongoing Debacle
Sep 07, 2008 Ongoing Debacle rated it really liked it
When did 3 paragraphs of "what I did on my summer vacation" turn into a genre of "goofy stuff I did for a year"? Mix a year (or 18 months) of finding one self and a word processor gets a autobiographical / self help / travelogues all in one. I'll admit, I usually mop it up and this was no exception. Take Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. A lovely, in depth, well written exploration of a year creating new life patterns. In general, the substance Better Off was addressed living off ...more
Aug 02, 2015 Kate rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure how this book is so split between excellent reviews and poor ones.

The negative reviews often describe the author as arrogant and narcissistic; he's certainly introspective, as is appropriate in a memoir (I wonder what these same reviewers would say about Thoreau), but I don't see the arrogance. The author doesn't shy away from negative depictions of himself. Compared to his new Amish-style neighbors, he's weak, ignorant, and incompetent in his new lifestyle, but he seems to realize
Sep 23, 2012 Meander rated it did not like it
To be fair and give full disclosure, I didn't finish reading this book. As I was reading it, I supposed there might have been a few things of worth to pull out of it, but I was so overwhelmed by how arrogant it was that I was done with it long before the book was over.

Eric Brende struck me as having such a 'me first' attitude that he didn't even write about other people like they were real. He was the only person who was described as having serious or complex thoughts and everyone else was descr
Nov 21, 2010 Ami rated it liked it
I am a fan of this new "a year in the life" movement among memoirs. I get to satisfy my voyeur-like tendencies without having to leave home.

In "Better Off," the author and his wife leave technology and the city behind and live in a Menonnite community for 18 months. I must say, I enjoyed the first half of this book much more than the end. Eric Brende's journey to live with an Amish like group and his trials and discoveries are enjoyable at first. The changes in his life style and the consequenc
Jun 02, 2009 Melissa rated it it was ok
I blazed through the first fifty or so pages of the book, loving the premise, and initially, loving the author's take on the subject of self-sufficiency. I felt inspired to try a hand cranked washing machine and seek out other ways to minimize my dependency on electricity and unnecessary mechanization, but then things started to head south.

Perhaps it was the discussion of religious doctrine, which was interesting from a cultural standpoint at first, but soon began to make me feel claustrophobic
Feb 21, 2011 Lisa rated it really liked it
Shelves: sustainability
I am choosing a more & more sustainable, less consumerist life, so books like this interest me a lot. I am discovering that systems for doing necessary tasks sustainably in an urban techno world are often what's lacking -- and then each person/family has to re-invent the wheel in their own home. That was the big attraction for me in reading Better Off. Eric and Mary are joining a community that already has many of these systems figured out. Too much milk from your cow? Get a pig. Canning, ...more
Feb 20, 2011 Will rated it liked it
While it's an interesting book on the joys of simple living, I found that there were some things that were either not mentioned or very "off" in Brende's description. He mentions Catholic vs Anabaptist leanings, but talks about religion as a component of living off the grid -- while he has questions about the orthodoxy of the church and boring church sermons, he doesn't have a problem with the basic concept of religion as an integral part of life there. I do. Every time I was interested or found ...more
Jul 15, 2009 Kara rated it it was amazing
To follow up the book Ecocities w/ Better Off at first seemed like it would be too much 'reality' reading for the summer, but Better Off was a surprisingly light read focusing on the people's story - then interweaving the less technology ideals.
The writing and story was good, but the ideas better. The highlight for me was the final chapter and epilogue. Especially since it had so many references to which I am familiar, "one night it was Henry Louis Gates going to a Spanish restaurant on the Camb
Aug 01, 2008 Sharon rated it it was ok
Brende raises some interesting points about the nature of work and community and how technology can take away our time rather than contributing to it. Overall though, I was disappointed. I had hoped the book would be more of a reflection about the thoughtful incorporation of technology into our lives (which he does get into in the last two chapters). Instead, Brende seems unquestioningly in favor of the "Minimites"'s philosophy and the refusal to use automated machinery. I wish he had been more ...more
Rachel Wilkie
Jul 22, 2015 Rachel Wilkie rated it it was amazing
I've been reading a lot of books about simplifying, reducing waste, and becoming a more conscious consumer. I enjoyed this book for its ideas - and thought the best overarching concept to be drawn is that, for the most part, everything that we've added as a labor-saving/technological device, can actually wind up costing more work/less time in the long run - because of the costs involved in the purchase, maintenance, repairs, etc. (For example, the automobile is supposed to make it easier to get ...more
Sep 15, 2009 Geraldine rated it did not like it
This could have been a really interesting memoir about living off the grid with an Amish-ish community, but the narrator was so smug and self-satisfied that it left me with a really bad taste in my mouth. I don't expect these kinds of books to tiptoe around the readers' feelings for fear of making them feel guilty about their own very-on-the-grid lives. But Brende could barely get a chapter out without congratulating himself for the lessons he was teaching us. And now he's a richshaw driver in ...more
Aug 04, 2015 Jes rated it really liked it
A charming book with a great premise. What would life be like if we hung up technology and let our muscles do the work for a bit? Based on Eric's experiences, I can say that life is only increased for the better.

I am inspired by his journey, by his convictions which took him to take risk and try living a little differently than most of the western world. I am compelled to reduce my dependance on machinery and technology myself (as I type this on my laptop) which is probably why this book appeal
Feb 21, 2008 Steve rated it liked it
Recommended to Steve by: Dan
Billed as a story of a couple who "flipped the switch" on technology and moved to an Amish community, giving up electricity, running water, and everything else that comes along with it. This book is an interesting look into the Mennonite community and, without question, caused me to stop and think about my day-to-day consumption of technology.

It is, however, predominately from the perspective of a man, with little mention of his wife's experience. I really would like to have heard more about Mar
Jacqueline West
Aug 02, 2009 Jacqueline West rated it did not like it
A fascinating premise, but written in such an arrogant, stuffy, egocentric, patronizing way that it is almost impossible to stomach. Brende's writing - and thinking, apparently - is full of over-generalization, assumption, and hypocrisy, mixed with occasional descriptions of his neighbors or the natural world that read like passages from a terrible 19th-century novel. Boo.
May 11, 2007 Catherine rated it it was ok
Although I thought the premise for this book was intriguing, Eric Brende really went into very monotonous detail, to the point of making me want to scream, "I get it!!" I found him a bit off-putting. If this book had been edited to half of its current page count I might have found it more appealing. I'm rating this book fair, at best.
Jan 25, 2008 Eva rated it liked it
The subtitle of this book is "two people, one year, zero watts." This book isn't really about the process of escaping modern technology (though it definately covers it). It talks more about the comraderie involved in living in a "minimite" community. This lifestyle isn't a hardship at all, but more like freedom than being a slave to your belongings.
Geoffrey Kleinman
May 27, 2007 Geoffrey Kleinman rated it did not like it
Abandoned reading the book part way through. When an author writes that he didn't have time to write what happened in a day you get the sense that the book isn't going to be stellar. And as far as I got into this one.. it wasn't.
Jun 10, 2007 Alex rated it really liked it
Shelves: sociology
pretty sweet book, the author and his wife joined a mennonite (amish) community and tried to live without technology, as a sociology experiment. it's a pretty interesting story, and makes a good point that we shouldn't rely on technology if we can help it.
Dec 31, 2009 HippieMommy rated it really liked it
I devoured this book in about 24 hours. Definitely a must-read if you have any curiosity about living off of the grid and/or Mennonite and Amish ways of life. It was (overall) a very good book, and I love the conclusions that he drew about the way that we work with technology vs. with our hands.
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