The best books about why humans have so much stuff

Who am I?

I’m an archaeologist, which means that I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places to dig and survey ancient remains. What I’ve realized in handling those dusty old objects is that all over the world, in both past and present, people are defined by their stuff: what they made, used, broke, and threw away. Most compelling are the things that people cherished despite being worn or flawed, just like we have objects in our house that are broken or old but that we keep anyway.


I wrote...

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

By Monica L. Smith,

Book cover of Cities: The First 6,000 Years

What is my book about?

Cities are such a strange concept that they had to be invented: in the deep past, everyone lived in villages. Yet cities provide so many things that a village cannot: diversity, entertainment, higher education, economic opportunities, and a sense of excitement accompanied by ever-increasing quantities of stuff. How did cities get started? What characteristics do modern cities share with ancient ones, both positive and negative? And what is it like to actually dig a city as an archaeologist, going down to the very bottom of the earliest urban centers to find out what made them so attractive to ancient inhabitants? 


The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

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

By Daniel Miller,

Book cover of 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.


Consumption Takes Time: Implications for Economic Theory

By Ian Steedman,

Book cover of 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.


The Art of Choosing

By Sheena Iyengar,

Book cover of 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.


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

By Michael J. Silverstein, Neil Fiske, John Butman

Book cover of 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.


On Garbage

By John Scanlan,

Book cover of 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…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in decision making, Western culture, and India?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about decision making, Western culture, and India.

Decision Making Explore 36 books about decision making
Western Culture Explore 18 books about Western culture
India Explore 239 books about India

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Nudge, and Eastern Philosophy if you like this list.