The best books on materialism

3 authors have picked their favorite books about materialism and why they recommend each book.

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The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman,

Book cover of The World Without Us

When trying to imagine what would happen if civilization collapsed, you run up against some really basic, logistical details. Like, what actually happens to all our stuff, if no one's around to take care of it? Turns out, it falls apart a lot quicker than you'd think. Anyone who's noticed the grass and saplings coming up through the pavement in an abandoned lot after just a couple of years understands this. Now expand that to everything. Weisman's book asks questions about this post-people world I didn't even know to ask and the answers are fascinating.

Who am I?

I have an idea. A conviction, let's call it, that humanity is not doomed. The Mad Max scenario where civilization collapses, thrusting us into an anarchic hellscape in which the living envy the dead, is totally unrealistic and not likely to happen. So let's imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario in which people come together to help each other, to save what knowledge they can, to build something new and useful. To learn the lessons from the destruction that came before. This is what I tried to imagine in my novel Bannerless, and this is why this topic interests me so much.

I wrote...


By Carrie Vaughn,

Book cover of Bannerless

What is my book about?

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroy much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. 

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him? In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

The Matter of History

By Timothy J. Lecain,

Book cover of The Matter of History

I am recommending this volume because it shocked me with its ability to nestle humans into the world as an integral part of the natural world, not separate from it, not rulers over it, but clever animals that need the Earth more than the Earth needs us. It helps me to undercut the manufactured power of the divinely ordained rulers from ancient Egypt.

Who am I?

I'm a specialist of ancient Egyptian social history, who against the better judgment of (practically all) her colleagues uses the ancient past to make the present understandable. If we don’t fetishize the ancient Egyptians as separate and magical, they have something to teach us, whispering to us from the past through papyri, temples, and archaeological sites. After all, Egyptian history is 3000 years plus in its time span, an astounding data set of a people using same approximate language, government system, religion, and culture. Some of us look hungrily to replicate that kind of lasting and divine power. I am obsessed with power—how it works, why we are helpless to it, and who gets exploited by it. The ancient Egyptian kings effectively packaged their power not only as necessary, but as moral and good, ancient marketing that continues to work on our minds.

I wrote...

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

By Kara Cooney,

Book cover of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

What is my book about?

Female rulers are a rare phenomenon--but thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, women reigned supreme. Regularly, repeatedly, and with impunity, queens like Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra controlled the totalitarian state as power-brokers and rulers. But throughout human history, women in positions of power were more often used as political pawns in male-dominated societies. Why did ancient Egypt provide women this kind of access to the highest political office? What was it about these women that allowed them to transcend patriarchal obstacles? What did Egypt gain from its liberal reliance on female leadership, and could today's world learn from its example?

In this captivating narrative, celebrated Egyptologist Kara Cooney delivers a fascinating tale of female power, exploring the reasons why it has seldom been allowed through the ages--and why we should care.

Material World

By Peter Menzel,

Book cover of Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Never was the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” more true than in this photographic journey around the world. Menzel and his team traveled to 30 countries, found a family in each location willing to move the entire contents of their home from inside to front yard and then photographed family, contents, and dwelling. From a mud hut in Mali to a luxurious dwelling in Kuwait, Menzel’s photos are always informative, never lackadaisical, and sometimes heart-wrenching. Points to ponder: The most valued possession for the Bosnian family featured in the book is listed as a lamp.

Who am I?

In my 30 years as a writer I’ve learned it’s not enough to simply deliver information; it has to be done in an entertaining, engaging, and inspiring way. I’ve been fascinated in how the world “works” all my life. As a kid I dismantled the family lawn mower (failing to get it re-mantled.) After teaching for two years I turned to general contracting where it was imperative to know how things “worked.”  As an editor with Readers’ Digest and Family Handyman magazine, I wrote the “How A House Works” column and headed up the DIY books division, teaching others how the world works. For the last 15 years I’ve been focused on books that explore the world around us.

I wrote...

A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

By Spike Carlsen,

Book cover of A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

What is my book about?

We read books about climbing Mount Everest, exploring the depths of the oceans, and traveling to the moon. But what do we know about the world right under our feet; the world we encounter every day? Join the author as he investigates where our trash and recycling go, where our water and electricity come from, how cell phone towers work, and why pigeons and squirrels thrive in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Twenty-six chapters cover 26 fascinating subjects. 

Meet the unforgettable characters the author encounters along the way: Squirrel linguists, graffiti artists in Paris, fellow judges in a roadkill cook-off, the Nordic Walking Queen. It soon becomes clear that this “everyday world” is as full of mystery, history, and intrigue as any story ever told.

Swords of the Viking Age

By Ian Peirce,

Book cover of Swords of the Viking Age

In order to understand the combat of the Vikings, we must be familiar with the physical tools used for delivering violence, as revealed in the archaeological sources. Swords of the Viking Age is one of the better books in that category. It explores the material aspects of swords, one of the key tools of violence during the Viking age.

Who are we?

In the Viking age, one could not escape destiny, and so it is with William and Reynir, men from two vastly different fields who met by chance and shared a passion for discovery. Their research on Viking combat has led to many groundbreaking discoveries and never before done testing. Their work has been accepted by leading museums, universities, and professional societies, and they regularly share their research findings in lectures, classes, and presentations at these venues. The National Museum of Iceland recently opened a special exhibit that features their research. In many ways, their work has changed our understanding of Vikings and shown a new approach to Viking research.

We wrote...

Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat

By William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson,

Book cover of Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat

What is our book about?

Sometime near the end of the tenth century, a man named Fraði died in Sweden. His kinsmen raised a granite runestone to his memory in Denmark. The carved message appears to tell us that Fraði was “first among all Vikings” and that he was the “terror of men.” Known sources about the Vikings revolve around the constant threat of violence: literary and artistic sources from both inside and outside Viking lands, including poetry, myths, stories, and artwork; law codes; burial practices; weapons. In the book, the authors dig deep into Fraði’s society so that the reader will understand the importance of combat to Viking society, the nature of that combat, and the code of conduct of these “men of terror.

Creation's Journey

By Tom Hill (editor), Richard W. Hill (editor),

Book cover of Creation's Journey: Native American Identity and Belief

Creation’s Journey ties actual native stories and beliefs with genuine artifacts from the vast collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. It provides a refreshing approach to our understanding of indigenous people’s utilitarian objects and how important they are in their daily lives. The photos in this book show the care for detail and craftsmanship that was pervasive in everyday Native American objects and clothing. It inspired me to commission native Americans to hand make the various costumes shown in my book.

Who am I?

Greg Shed is a self-taught California illustrator specializing in Americana. In addition to commercial work and portraits, he has illustrated more than a dozen children’s books—several of which are about American history. A dedicated researcher, Greg has traveled from the Plymouth colony to the American prairie in search of authenticity and details. He has consulted with Native American craftsmen on the manufacture of native period attire. He is known for capturing golden light in his paintings, which often depict Native American cultures, wildlife, and landscapes.

I illustrated...

Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving

By Joseph Bruchac, Greg Shed (illustrator),

Book cover of Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving

What is my book about?

It has a deep and thoughtful understanding of Native American traditions through the almost mythical life of Tecumseh from the Shawnee Nation. With a colorful and descriptive view of language as if a Native American is speaking to the reader.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

By Marie Kondo,

Book cover of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The surest way I’ve found to break the cycle of materialism is to develop an aesthetic for less, then face head-on the results of past consumptive behaviors. Marie Kondo’s book is the best there is on this subject. When stepping out of the rat race, many folks have a tendency to hoard as a fear reflex. Kondo’s words and wisdom, even if you can’t bring yourself to follow every last dictum, will help you see and feel the effects of materialism, and naturally shed that compulsion to “have more.”  I was always an “anti-consumer.” But it felt like a strict diet — I was resisting a compulsion to acquire more. 

After this book, then following her recommendations, that compulsion went away for good. I didn’t just think less was better. I felt it down to my core. My savings grew, my house got cleaner (relatively speaking), and I became far…

Who am I?

I’m an entrepreneur, chef, homeschooler, and third-generation farmer living in the northern Catskill mountains. With that many passions, I had to remove all other distractions from my life so that I could put my attention on what mattered most. My writing has been featured in The New York Times, National Public Radio, and national television. During the growing season, I broadcast The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow podcast, chronicles and lessons from a life tied to family, community, and the land. You can also taste my cooking by coming to my restaurant, Sap Bush Cafe, on Saturdays, 9-2 (I’m too busy living the good life to be open the other days).

I wrote...

Redefining Rich: Achieving True Wealth with Small Business, Side Hustles, and Smart Living

By Shannon Hayes,

Book cover of Redefining Rich: Achieving True Wealth with Small Business, Side Hustles, and Smart Living

What is my book about?

Redefining Rich is the ultimate quick (and funny) go-to guide to help you get started on a life where less is more, whether you want to start your own business, live off the land, quit a job, or just build a life more resilient and pleasurable than your current rat race.  Drawing on research & personal experience, it shows readers how to identify their core quality-of-life needs and dreams, then build a personal, family, and economic survival strategy that works for everyone in the household.

Glass, Paper, Beans

By Leah Hager Cohen,

Book cover of Glass, Paper, Beans: Revolutions on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things

“Where do my coffee and newspaper come from?” Cohen muses one morning in her favorite coffee shop…and she’s off and running, to find the unseen nature and labor that make our everyday lives possible. The most gorgeous, lyrical explanation of alienation and fetishization you’ll ever find, and a model for how to drag nature writing into the 21st century.

Who am I?

I’m a writer, artist, and historian, and I’ve spent much of my career trying to blow up the powerful American definition of environment as a non-human world “out there”, and to ask how it’s allowed environmentalists, Exxon, and the EPA alike to refuse to take responsibility for how we inhabit environments. Along the way, I’ve written Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America and "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA"; co-founded the LA Urban Rangers public art collective; and co-created the “Our Malibu Beaches” phone app. I currently live in St. Louis, where I’m a Research Fellow at the Sam Fox School at Washington University-St. Louis. 

I wrote...

Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto

By Jenny Price,

Book cover of Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto

What is my book about?

We’ve been ​“saving the planet” for decades…and environmental crises just get worse. All this Tesla driving & LEED building & carbon trading seems to accomplish little to nothing—all while low-income communities continue to suffer the most devastating consequences. So why aren’t we cleaning up the toxic messes & rolling back climate change? Also, why do so many Americans hate environmentalists?

Jenny Price says, enough already! — with this short, fun, fierce manifesto for an approach that is hugely more effective, tons fairer, and a great deal less righteous. She challenges you, Exxon, & the EPA alike to think and act completely anew—and to do it now.

How Things Shape the Mind

By Lambros Malafouris,

Book cover of How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

I love the way Malafouris delves into deeply philosophical questions about the boundaries of the mind. Working from the perspective of cognitive archeology, he broadly examines what makes us human in our engagement with objects and each other. Why does it help to understand the mind this way? Whenever we want to learn more about how we do the things we do, theories like Malafouris’ material engagement theory can help us to organize familiar tasks and situations in a way that makes the underlying cognitive processes transparent. If you want to improve your performance in any area, conceptual frameworks like this one (and the one in my book) can bring tacit processes into focus. 

Who am I?

As an interdisciplinary scholar with professional musical training, I surveyed the literature in cognitive science for conceptual frameworks that would shed light on tacit processes in musical activity. I was tired of research that treats the musician either as a “lab rat” not quite capable of fully understanding what they do or as a “channel” for the mysterious and divine. I view musicians as human beings who engage in meaningful activity with instruments and with each other. Musicians are knowledgeable, skilled, and deeply creative. The authors on this list turn a scientific lens on human activity that further defines how we make ourselves through meaningful work and interactions.

I wrote...

Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

By Linda T. Kaastra,

Book cover of Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

What is my book about?

This book presents four case studies of expert thinking in instrumental music performance. It draws uniquely on dominant paradigms from the fields of cognitive science, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, and psycholinguistics to develop an ecologically valid framework for the analysis of cognitive processes in musical activity. By presenting a close analysis of activities, including instrumental performance on the bassoon, lessons on the guitar, and a group rehearsal, Kaastra provides new insights into the person/instrument system, the musician’s use of informational resources, and the organization of perceptual experience during a musical performance. Engaging in musical activity is shown to be a highly dynamic and collaborative process invoking tacit knowledge and coordination as musicians identify targets of focal awareness for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

Destinations in Mind

By Kimberly Cassibry,

Book cover of Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

Although we often dismiss souvenirs as kitsch, they can be deeply meaningful to people, both today and in antiquity. Taking a phenomenological approach to ancient Roman souvenirs of places, Kimberly Cassibry shows how people would have held, used, and interacted with small objects showing seaside resort towns on the Bay of Naples, the Circus Maximus in Rome, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the western empire’s network of imperial roads. Her book taught me just how large makers and materials loom in how places came to be represented and conceptualized in Roman antiquity. I love that Cassibry forces me to think anew about my own travel souvenirs and how I interact with them to make meaning of places my loved ones or I have visited. 

Who am I?

I love exploring new places, buildings, and artworks. Luckily, my job, as a professor of ancient Roman art history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, allows me to do so! I am fascinated by the material culture of the Roman Empire and the ways in which buildings and objects—whether grand monuments like the Pantheon in Rome or humbler items like a terracotta figurine of a gladiator—shape how we experience the world and relate to other people. Whether I am living in Paris or Rome, excavating in Greece or Italy, or traveling elsewhere in the former lands of the Roman Empire, these topics are never far from my mind.

I wrote...

Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome

By Maggie L. Popkin,

Book cover of Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

If you think souvenirs and memorabilia are just a modern phenomenon, think again! Tourists and sports fans in the Roman Empire could purchase travel souvenirs, keepsakes of sporting events, and miniature replicas of famous statues and monuments. Straddling the spheres of religion, spectacle, leisure, and politics, ancient Roman souvenirs allow us to look beyond our traditional sources of Roman history and catch a glimpse of the experiences, interests, imaginations, and aspirations of ordinary people living in the empire from Britain to Syria, and everywhere between. Ancient souvenirs shaped how people “saw” places, people, and events they might never see in person, and they allowed sub-elites to participate, even if vicariously, in an empire-wide culture of travel, leisure, and spectacle.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

By David Forsyth (editor),

Book cover of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

This is a collection of essays for a major exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in 2017. It features essays on aspects of the endurance of the Jacobite cause, and objects associated with Jacobitism (like Bonnie Prince Charlie’s silver picnic set). It also has over 200 pictures. This myth has endured through the writings of Sir Walter Scott through Outlander, and this book presents the much, much larger, and more complex story.

Who am I?

I dropped out of law school to pursue a PhD in music at the University of Glasgow and to write the history of the flute in Scotland. Essentially, I wanted to know that if Scotland was a leader in Enlightenment thought, and if there were hundreds of publications with flute on the title page, and since the flute was the most popular amateur instrument in the eighteenth century, why was nothing written about the flute. I obsessively read Scottish mythology as a child, and was always drawn to the stereotypical wild misty landscapes of Scotland without knowing much about it. 

I wrote...

The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

By Elizabeth Ford,

Book cover of The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

What is my book about?

This is the first (and only) book devoted to the flute in Scottish music history. It explores the rich history of the flute in Scottish musical life through people who played it, made it, and offers in depth analysis of surviving flute manuscripts.

This might sound dry, but it has pictures, and has been called “required reading” and “groundbreaking.” I suspect this is because the common misconception is that no one in Scotland played flute, that flute in traditional music is an Irish thing. I debunk that, along with the other myth about ladies not playing flute. The flute’s use in Scottish music gets moved much earlier than previously thought along the way. 

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