Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach was one of those ubiquitous books that women were buying and recommending with abandon.  I picked up a copy because an online group to which I belonged at the time recommended it to me, and because someone I thought was a dear friend had introduced me to the idea of ____.  I lost the journal.  I tried to read the book and found it to be bourgeoisie and somehow disingenuous.  Ironic given that one of the tenets the author purports is integrity and authenticity.

It has been on my bookshelf for a while and I picked up a copy of the author’s Romancing the Ordinary which, for whatever reason, appealed to me far more than her previous books (as there had been others published in the meantime).  Then I was given an ARC of her latest book Peace and Plenty and I chose to read these books I had collected of hers along with the latest book given to me for the purpose of review.

I wanted to put all of this into context because my feelings about Simple Abundance will inevitably reflect my long and complicated relationship with the book. 

I love the idea of this book.  Breathnach endeavors to write a book in which she reflects upon certain themes which inform her concept of Simple Abundance.  She recommends certain tools—like keeping a gratitude journal and ­­­Illustrated Discovery Journal.  She shares many of her personal stories throughout, along with quotes she has gathered (but does not adequately cite, one of my ongoing complaints about her books), and ends each month’s meditations with a list of recommended books to read or movies to watch or simple things to do. 

The author is fond of ritual and idealizes the feminine lushness of Victoriana.  Truth be told, I find it amusing how often women hearken back to simpler times, like the Janeites who wish romance were as uncomplicated as in Pride and Prejudice, overlooking the obvious classism and sexism of the era as if falling in love with a Mr Darcy would solve anyone’s misery when the truth is few men ever married beneath them and Elizabeth, for all her wit and fair eyes, would have been a likely let alone possible choice. 

But I digress. 

What Breathnach writes is a book that reflects her definition of simplicity and it simply does not align itself with my own.  Her audience is not me and, while I can see why white middle class women adore the book and even appreciate why Oprah Winfrey recommended it, I found it more superficial than spiritual.  However, that is not entirely Breathnach’s fault.  She wrote this book under circumstances that were bound to manifest on the page.  She is younger than I and I have since read later books by the author that strip away some of the façade of what she is trying to promote.  The life she creates for herself—and into which she invites the reader—later falls apart, as she herself reveals in both Romancing the Ordinary and Peace and Plenty

But she never actually suggests that the reader should do the things she does, although she never really explains how the reader can find their own way.  (The tools she suggests the reader create, such as the ____, are ill-defined, in my opinion.)  And she does have a way of making her ideal sound like The Ideal, which, although is not her intention, is how the meditations sound in spite of her best intentions.  This is evident especially in light of hind-sight and the backlash she has experienced from her readers who have been disappointed and disenchanted with her.

For instance, Peace and Plenty is not as optimistic a book as Simple Abundance.  I am confident that Breathnach would herself concede to this fact. After all, she was not writing the book from the same place.  Older and presumably wise, then the more contemporary book was written she had faced a great deal of loss including a divorce.  So when reading Simple Abundance, it is difficult to feel inspired by her suggestions because one is aware with the turn of every page that it is all impermanent.  In fact, so much of the text comes across as materialistic and this was what turned me off the first few times I tried to read the text.  For a book that purports itself to be simple, she spends a lot of time telling the reader to surround themselves with things.  At the end of each month’s readings there is a list of books r movies, which is fine, but there are also a lot of catalogs and other such resources recommended that belie the supposed deeper meaning and unmet promise of the book.  And when she encourages the reader to collect images of an ideal self, these typically revolve around fashion and physical qualities rather than pure states of being.

It doesn’t surprise me that, in one of her later books, she is nonplussed when one of her admiring readers, at a book signing, is offended by Breathnach’s wearing Milano Bilahniks.  Clearly that fan either never actually read Breathnach’s book or didn’t read it as closely as I did because there is no doubt in my mind that the young woman who wrote Simple Abundance would happily spend a great deal of money on luxury items because she didn’t define her simplicity in Luddite or Amish terms. 

Reading both this book and her most recent book serves as a cautionary tale, I suppose.  For those readers who insist that the former publication is her best work, I can only sigh and sympathize with the author.  For those readers who became angry with Breathnach, I can only sigh and offer the author a sympathetic hug.  The problem is not with the author;  she is constantly saying the reader to be authentic, to find their own way of being.  What Breathnach puts on the page is her own authenticity, her so-called simplicity and her definition of abundance.  If it does not align itself with my own, is that her fault?  Is that mine?  No.

So would I recommend this book?  No.  Maybe.  Not really. 

No, because I think there are better books out there to encourage women to find a life and a way of being that is fulfilling. 

Maybe, because I found a few ideas she throws out there to be intriguing although I would have to remove them contextually and redefine them to better fit my own life.  And I also realize that there are some women’s whose own lives are perhaps so consumed with children and work that they have lost some personal depth and this book can be an invitation to begin going deeper. 

Not really, because I think it is superficial even when it is its most deep and I like to believe that we’ve come a long way, baby, and this book, even when it was first published, does not bring women or the idea of femininity forward. 

The thing is, I haven’t given up on Breathnach’s idea for this disappointing book.  I didn’t keep it around for so very long because I didn’t think it contained any merit.  However, I think that I, and every woman who has ever considered reading this book, would do better to write her own book (which the author encourages the reader to do at the book’s end).  Maybe, just maybe, the time is ripe for Breathnach to write a how-to book that doesn’t just lay out her personal ideal but serves as a workbook for the reader to reach some essential and personal definition for “simple” and “abundance.”  And considering all that Breathnach has since experienced in her own life—two divorces, financial challenges, and more—she can probably write something that will touch the hearts of a much larger audience than ever before.

But if she does, I really hope that this time she puts a title and page to every book quote and such she cites because I am so tired of the laziness that just throws them out there and doesn’t allow the reader to see these words of wisdom within a context other than Breathnach’s own.

Note:  This book was actually one I read as part of my morning books in 2011 but I just noticed that I forgot to post the review.  So this is a belated review, I suppose.  Sorry about that.

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