The best books about why humans have so much stuff

The Books I Picked & Why

Artefacts as Categories: A Study of Ceramic Variability in Central India

By Daniel Miller

Artefacts as Categories: A Study of Ceramic Variability in Central India

Why this book?

Miller’s work in village India – a world away from most of our experiences  – focuses on the way that people make things to be bought and used, cherished and given, and broken and discarded, all with a feedback loop from producer to consumer and back again. Through his conversations with artisans, he reveals that when high-status people buy certain shapes, lower-status people start to want them also, until those shapes become too “common” and high-status folks begin to show their distinction through the patronage of a new design. The cycle is never-ending, and Miller’s memorable words are always in the back of my mind whenever I’m looking through ancient artifacts and thinking about how their forms and decorations changed over time.


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Consumption Takes Time: Implications for Economic Theory

By Ian Steedman

Consumption Takes Time: Implications for Economic Theory

Why this book?

This looks like it’s the sternest and most boring book ever, but I love Steedman’s cool-and-collected ability to address the implications of the obvious: You can only do one thing at a time. You only have two hands. And when you’re with one set of belongings, you’re neglecting all the other stuff you own.


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The Art of Choosing

By Sheena Iyengar

The Art of Choosing

Why this book?

Almost everyone has more stuff than they can hold at once. Picking up something new involves setting down something that you already had. Iyengar’s book is the background for every marketing decision ever made, but from the consumer’s perspective: when there is so much stuff in the world, how do you make a choice? Part psychology, part business manual, Iyengar illustrates how much decision-making we do every single day.


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Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods--And How Companies Create Them

By Michael J. Silverstein, Neil Fiske, John Butman

Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods--And How Companies Create Them

Why this book?

Every time you buy something, aren’t you wondering if you should have bought something else? These authors show how companies make use of our endless waffling about coulda-shoulda-woulda, and focus on all of those categories that you might have overlooked as being part of the status quest, like dog food and appliances, as well as the things that you know the corporate world is doing an upsell on, like sporting equipment and wine. Along the way, you begin to realize that absolutely everything you ever buy, give, or receive is carrying a message about your actual identity -- or the identity that you’re hoping for.


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On Garbage

By John Scanlan

On Garbage

Why this book?

Sh*t happens (bad relationships, business failures, burnt toast). That’s OK, says Scanlan, because making garbage is an essential part of any activity. In fact, you can’t get anywhere, or achieve any kind of personal or intellectual growth, without some detritus. To me, this explains why humans make so much trash of the kind that I’ve spent my life digging up in archaeological sites. And it makes me feel quite OK about spending a day writing stuff that might go straight into the shredder tomorrow…


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