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...

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? 


Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Monica L. Smith Why did I love 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.

By Daniel Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Artefacts as Categories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The aim of Artefacts as Categories is to ask what we can learn about a society from the variability of the objects it produces. Dr Miller presents a comprehensive analysis of the pottery produced in a single village in central India, drawing together and analysing a whole range of aspects - technology, function, design, symbolism and ideology - that are usually studied separately. Using the concepts of 'pragmatics', 'framing' and 'ideology', the author points to the insufficiency of many ethnographic accounts of symbolism and underlines the need to consider both the social positioning of the interpreter and the context of…


Book cover of Consumption Takes Time: Implications for Economic Theory

Monica L. Smith Why did I love 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.

By Ian Steedman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Consumption Takes Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Standard economic theory of consumer behaviour considers consumers' preferences, their incomes and commodity prices to be the determinants of consumption. However, consumption takes time and no consumer has more - or less - than 168 hours per week. This simple fact is almost invisible in standard theory, and takes the centre stage in this book.


Book cover of The Art of Choosing

Monica L. Smith Why did I love 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.

By Sheena Iyengar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Art of Choosing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Every day we make choices. Coke or Pepsi? Save or spend? Stay or go? Whether mundane or life-altering, these choices define us and shape our lives. Sheena Iyengar asks the difficult questions about how and why we choose: Is the desire for choice innate or bound by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? How much control do we really have over what we choose? Her award-winning research reveals that the answers are surprising and profound. In our world of shifting political and cultural forces, technological revolution, and interconnected commerce, our decisions have far-reaching consequences. Use this…


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

Monica L. Smith Why did I love 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.

By Michael J. Silverstein, Neil Fiske, John Butman

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trading Up as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Trading up isn't just for the wealthy anymore. These days no one is shocked when an administrative assistant buys silk pajamas at Victoria's Secret. Or a young professional buys only Kendall-Jackson premium wines. Or a construction worker splurges on a $3,000 set of Callaway golf clubs.

In dozens of categories, these new luxury brands now sell at huge premiums over conventional goods, and in much larger volumes than traditional old luxury goods. Trading Up has become the definitive book about this growing trend.


Book cover of On Garbage

Monica L. Smith Why did I love 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…

By John Scanlan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Garbage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first work to examine the detritus of our culture in its full range; garbage in this sense is not only material waste and ruin, environmental degradation and so on, but also residual or 'broken' knowledge, useless concepts, the remainders of systems of intellectual and cultural thought. In this unique and original work (a kind of intellectual scavenging in its own right) the author shows why garbage is, perversely, the source of all that is valuable. The author considers how Western philosophy, science and technology attained mastery over nature through what can be seen as a prolonged act…


You might also like...

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

Nita Sweeney Author Of How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.

Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

Reduce stress, ease anxiety, and increase inner peace—one day at a time—with a year of easy-to-follow mindfulness meditation techniques. Certified mindfulness teacher, bestselling author, ultramarathoner, wife, and dog-mom Nita Sweeney shares mindfulness meditation practices to help anyone break free from worry and self-judgment.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to live in the present moment—the now. Feel calmer. Think more clearly. Respond more effectively and enjoy a more fulfilling life. Even in tiny doses, mindfulness is scientifically proven to enhance physical and mental health, boost creativity, and improve cognition function.

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in decision making, Western culture, and India?

9,000+ 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 80 books about decision making
Western Culture Explore 51 books about Western culture
India Explore 423 books about India