Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream by William Powers

When you read my review, you'll likely be tempted to ask, Why did you bother to finish this book? Simple answer: book club. I certainly wouldn't have otherwise.

It sounds like an intriguing concept: a guy goes to live in a 12' x 12' shack in the woods, to reduce his carbon footprint and live more simply. However, Mr. Powers just wasn't the right author. While I agree with his ideas and his reasons for performing this experiment, he was not a pleasant companion for the ride. Utterly convinced of the rightness of his ideas and the wrongness of all others, his sanctimoniousness made the book nearly unbearable. He proudly mentioned his other books so many times that I lost track, he doesn't really acknowledge that he's freeloading (if I could freeload off friends, I could live on a lot less too but that isn't very practical on a large scale, nor is it an admirable quality.) The woman he's sponging off of, Jackie, might have been a better subject for the book. She's a doctor who has built this shack - at this size it's not considered a "house" and therefore she doesn't have to pay property tax - and she has also had her salary reduced to $11,000 so she doesn't have to pay income tax, as a protest against the War Department (her shack is available for Mr. Powers because she is out West, protesting nukes.) However, property taxes don't go towards war, and as a fellow North Carolina resident I am pretty dismayed at her callous unwillingness to support our schools (among many other things state taxes pay for, but that's the biggest.)

Sure, I also could have a smaller footprint if I had my girlfriend drive me around and mooched off businesses' electricity for my computer, but he doesn't acknowledge that neither of those things actually reduces his footprint as the gas and the electricity are still consumed by him - they just reduce his need to pay for those commodities. Additionally, the constant digressions to esoteric philosophies, and unrealistic conversations had me perpetually exasperated. Who calls their girlfriend - having ridden a bike to a pay phone because cell phones of course are too gauche - to ask, "What is sin?" The fact that Leah likes him definitely proves the adage, there is a lid for every pot. And when he finally - more than 200 pages in! - revealed that he had a 2-year-old daughter in South America, his self-righteous denial of a cell phone (or land land) went from annoying to irresponsible. And I did not believe his protests about how much he missed her and how much he wanted to spend more time with her. He was choosing to live in a shack and do nothing - what was keeping him from his daughter exactly? And not mentioning her for over 200 pages also doesn't convince me of how much he misses her, no matter his protests that his complete lack of a mention of her is due to the great pain he feels upon even thinking about her.

I wanted to like this book. It has an interesting concept and politics I believe in (if not this extreme). However by the end of it, I wanted to turn on every light in my much-too-big condo, overpay my taxes, and microwave frozen food from a multi-national conglomerate, just counteract all his do-goodery. Naturally, I won't in fact do any of that (except perhaps the microwaved food, mmmm) but he was so self-righteous and prideful of his earth-saving that it completely turned me off. Only my common sense that this feeling will pass has kept me putting my recyclables in the proper bin. I wish Mr Powers well and he does good things in the world, but I was glad when this book was over.

I got this book from a friend who passed along an ARC to me.


avisannschild said...

Wow, that's quite a rant! (And I don't mean that in a disapproving way at all.) I know what you mean about self-righteousness making you want to do the opposite of whatever it is, even if you believe in whatever it is! This sounds like a dreadful book!

Christy said...

Ugh, I hate reading authors who are so self-righteous. And it sounds really weird the way he handled writing about his daughter. But I loved reading your diatribe.