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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  2,405 ratings  ·  431 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 August 3rd 2004)
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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 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 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 sam ...more
Jun 11, 2007 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.
Jul 08, 2009 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 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 entire ...more
Feb 25, 2012 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
Sep 07, 2009 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 f ...more
May 16, 2011 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 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 wor ...more
Sep 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The starting point for this book was Eric Brende's desire to actively question a lot of things that most of us in modern America take for granted as "the way things are," particularly with regard to technology. Very much along the lines of Neil Postman in Technopoly and elsewhere, Brende recognized the unthinking acceptance of "technological progress" as a process in which as much is lost as is gained. His questions about technology led him, as he neared the end of graduate studies at M.I.T. to ...more
Jul 18, 2015 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 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
Apr 29, 2007 rated it really liked it
5/18/07- Purchased during a book bender at Powell's a few weeks back. Oddly enough, my profession is in information technology (although I'm more interested in the information side than the technology side when it comes to improving business performance.)

Looking forward to the read.

A review will follow...

6/30/07: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in contemplating their use of (addiction to?) modern "conveniences" and the personal, emotional, spiritual, physical and environmental e
Aug 14, 2010 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
Ongoing Debacle
Sep 04, 2008 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 23, 2009 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 S ...more
Jan 29, 2011 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, coolin ...more
Jul 15, 2009 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
Jun 30, 2008 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 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
Ian Caveny
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It is strange that of all my recent forays into memoir and autobiography, this one stands out. Previous entries for those genres, from theological and pastoral luminaries such as Richard Lischer or Barbara Brown Taylor, seem more up-my-alley; and, yet, I found myself enamored with Eric Brende’s little family- / life-story. It speaks to the part of my soul devoted to Wendell Berry and John Howard Yoder; it speaks to the joy I have in my garden.

Moreover, this memoir of life spent living amidst the
Jan 29, 2008 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
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you have ever admired old-school agrarians or even outright Luddites like Chesterton or the Nashville Agrarians, but wondered whether a de-industrialized, low-tech lifestyle is even feasible in modern times, this is a good book to read and ponder. Having lived in a shack without electricity or running water while apprenticing on an organic farm, I was reminded while reading this of many of my own trials. I wish I had read Brende first, however, because many of his (quite spiritual) reflection ...more
Jun 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Almost throughout this entire book, I was feeling it was just a 3 star "I liked it" book. But the last short chapter pulled it up to a solid 4 star. Interesting experiment about living without technology or electricity in an Amish-like community, but it lacked a lot of the details I wish it had. Still it was a good read, and the last chapter about returning to a more modern (but with little technology) life was the best chapter in the whole book. ...more
Rachel B
Nov 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars

Part memoir, part critique of modern living, and a few helpful tips about using less technology.

I really liked this book - it was informative and funny, and easy to read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is feeling tired with the "normal" mentalities of bigger is better and being busy means you matter.

Honestly, one of the only drawbacks I found related to his faith. He's Catholic, and yet at one point, when he mentions God's influence in the world, he tacks on "or substitute here you
Marjorie Elwood
Similar to No Impact Man (except not as good), in that a family decides to live lightly on the land for a period of time, in this case, without technology.

I suppose, since the religion of the community doesn't allow for women to have much say, I shouldn't have been so surprised that I heard so little of his wife's voice in what was written. In fact, the author at one point disrupts a feminist lecture to point out that the authors of the lecture have got it all wrong about the Amish and their tre
Kelly Kittel
Sep 06, 2019 rated it liked it
Interesting concept, privileged white male aside, but not such a great delivery. Liked the idea that leisure pervaded the day and was intrigued that machines actually make life more complicated, not less. As a wife, I know I am always more inclined to use less machinery than my husband when it comes to home maintenance, i.e. a screwdriver vs a drill, so this was a bit familiar. Our other house is a yurt and we were once Peace Corps volunteers, so I do get the whole simplifying your life ideology ...more
Dec 23, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2014, library-books
I didn't object to the premise of this book. There's a lot of interesting things to be explored about the impact of technology on our society, our health, our sense of community, the environment, etc. Unfortunately, this book doesn't really explore anything.

You know it's going to be a doozy from the first chapter, when Brende describes the gift of passion he brings to the soulless faculty of MIT by playing a disused piano in one of the buildings. I hate to break it to you, Brende, but there migh
Jan 17, 2020 rated it liked it
An interesting book that said more about the purpose and need for work and community than a specific lack of technology. Struggled a bit in the cohesiveness of its narration.

[Dewey Decimal Challenge: 303 - Social processes]
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