Want Not.

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(First, a note:  Sometimes life happens and my blog gets ignored.  The reading is still happening, for learning or escape purposes, but the time to reflect gets lost.  I’ve finished 5 books since I’ve last written and hope to catch up in the coming weeks, since now I’ve got nothing but time for a couple months.)

Summer in New York City is when I am most cognizant of waste: the waft of overflowing trashcans baking in the sun is, unfortunately, the smell I now associate most with July and August.  It is frightening to imagine the visual of the waste this city produces.  It seems that our culture’s general attitude is one of “throw away” convenience–and in one of my recent reads, author Jonathan Miles asks the readers to earnestly consider what we think we want, what we actually want, and the way we deal with the waste that is leftover.

Chosen for a teacher book club, Want Not is a novel made of three storylines that just barely overlap by the book’s end.  I can say with certainty that I didn’t love reading it, but once I got about half way through I began to appreciate the questions Miles was asking of his readers, stemming from the mantra “waste not, want not.”

For context, one storyline is of two “freegans,” a young couple living off the grid in New York City, squatting in an apartment for shelter and dumpster diving for food.  The woman is steadfast in her beliefs and the man a bit more electrified by his girlfriend and the thought of going against his materialistic parents than the idealism behind their lifestyle.  The second is a couple who lives in a “McMansion”: the wife lost her first husband on 9/11, the same morning she found out he had been cheating and planning to leave her.  Her second husband is a materialistic, narcissistic millionaire by way of debt collecting.  The final plot revolves around a middle aged professor on a committee to help design a site for nuclear waste whose father is battling Alzheimer’s and whose wife recently left him.

There were three questions I thought Miles was asking the to think about the story wove through at least seven narrators:

  • What do you desire in life?
  • How do you chase those desires? How are they related to the economics of your existence?
  • What do we do with our waste, both literal and metaphorical?

He suggests that in American culture today, people want immediately and easily: from iced coffees to homes to relationships, and this kind of wanting has broken down the notion of true meaning in life.  Though this was a long read and not every character has a personal revelation about the definition of waste and ill-pursued desires, by the end a sense of hope creeps into the plot.  One character begins to get rid of his “stuff,” starting with the extra things he had sitting around his house.  However, he started getting rid of most of his belongings: “With every sale or gift he could feel his broken life dematerializing, its old scarred edifice crumbling, the invited looters fleeing with its junked remnants, and with that feeling came astonishing relief,” (318).

As he came to reflect, the realization came: “Everything is salvageable. Even you,” (329).

I’m not sure that I could flat out recommend this book, because it took some serious work to get into, but I would recommend thinking about what you want from life–and if those wants are enriching and adding meaning or if they are piling up and taking up space but actually leaving you empty.  It is possible to reclaim a life you want to live.

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