Book review: Wabi Sabi Simple

By Philip Brewer on 24 February 2009 (Updated 30 April 2010) 13 comments

Wabi Sabi Simple: Create beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply. By Richard R. Powell.

Is there an intersection between living large and simple living? I think so. To me, living large is not about having more stuff or more expensive stuff, it's about living my life exactly as I choose, without being constrained by what my boss wants me to do, what the neighbors think, or what my creditors will allow. It's about the breadth and width of my life, not about how high I can pile up stuff. If that is how you want to live large, you'll find a lot of inspiration in Richard R. Powell's book Wabi Sabi Simple.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese term for a concept that is fundamentally Japanese, but that will also resonate with people from any culture. The term, Powell explains, comes from two Japanese words:

  • wabi means poverty--but poverty of the genteel sort where you have everything you need, even if you don't have everything you want.
  • sabi is a technical literary term used to describe a certain kind of melancholy feel such as evoked by images of nature, rural scenes, and autumn.

Together, though, they describe a certain kind of simplicity:

It is about respectful conversation, harmonious and peaceful dwellings, and modest behavior. It is ordered but not orderly, planned but not scheduled, simple but not simple-minded, and deliberate without being rigid.

This is a book that speaks to me. It finds words to describe many of the pieces that go together to make a life that is filled with both ease and meaning:

Filling life with wabi sabi might be as simple as emptying it of clutter. Wabi sabi cannot be contained in anything square, boxy, or bright, nor can it ever be modular. Quality control kills it, and uniformity negates it. It has to be authentic, genuine, and natural. It perishes under refinement, and sameness wilts it.... Having lots of wabi sabi is a contradiction.

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And they are beautiful words:

A friend and I kayaked on a July evening across Northumberland Channel to De Courcy Island just before sunset. The warm golden glow of the sun, low near the horizon, cast elongated shadows along the curving surfaces of the island's weathered sandstone cliffs. A bald eagle soared along the fir- and arbutus- covered ridge at the top of the bluff. We paddled slowly around each bend of the island's varied coastline and craned our necks to look up at the sculpted cookie dough shapes. When we pulled the craft in close, mottled rock, twisted trees, and barnacle-covered stones radiated the day's heat toward us, mirroring the warmth we felt at being there.

The book is not a how-to manual. It is an explanation of what wabi sabi is (and what it is not) with some illustrations of how simplicity enriches your life--at home, with your friends, at work. Implicit in the book is the notion that, if you understand simplicity, you don't need someone to tell you how to achieve it or how to apply its lessons to your life. Once you understand you won't need instruction or exhortation--you'll just see that simple living is better. This makes it an easy book to read. The author isn't trying to convince you of anything or talk you into anything. He's just showing you some things that he has found to be true and meaningful.

I'm all about simple living. To me, frugal living is a means to an end; when I have to choose between frugality and simplicity, I'll go with simplicity if I can possibly afford it. (Fortunately, simplicity often leads to reasonably frugal choices even when it doesn't lead to the most frugal choices.) If you have any interest in simplicity as a lifestyle choice--whether you're already living simply or not--you'll find much to enjoy and much to think about in Richard R. Powell's Wabi Sabi Simple.

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Guest's picture

To me, wabisabi isn't just about simplicity -- it's about valuing the imperfections of real things, as opposed to the perfection of things that can't be real. It's like the difference between a "perfect little boy" who never misbehaves and how our real children are "perfect" to us, in spite of -- or even because of -- the flaws and idiosyncrasies that make them human.

When I was younger, I didn't get it at all. I valued symmetry and perfection. In some kinds of Japanese wabisabi pottery, you turn a nice cup on the wheel and then squash it a bit, to make each one distinctive and unique. That just seemed perverse.

As I've aged, I've come to appreciated it more and I now think you can also use it in appreciating how to find beauty even in very unnatural things. You can't only find it in unspoiled wilderness, but also in oil refineries and urban blight -- in the rainbow of an oil-droplet in a mud puddle.

Guest's picture
Kevin W

Sounds like a good book. Your description of wabi sabi reminds me of the Quaker Testimonies.

Guest's picture

Thanks for sharing this -- I had never heard of it. Off to add it to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks again!

Guest's picture
Gayle

Mr. Brewer, I really enjoy your writing here on Wise Bread, and I'm tickled to think we've both picked up on this book.

I thought Wabi Sabi Simple was excellent and easy to comprehend. Sometimes books that tip towards the zen flavor require some concentration. Wabi Sabi Simple was a pleasure, as your examples show.

Understanding Wabi Sabi has enabled me to better remember the elements of:
Nothing lasts
Nothing is perfect
Nothing is finished

Thanks for another great post!
Gayle

Guest's picture
wildgift

I'm more with Steven. My sense of wabi sabi is the girl with a great smile but one crooked tooth. That, I think, it the typical example. I haven't seen Japanese magazine covers in ages, but, it used to be really the "thing to do" to show a pretty girl with one or two crooked teeth.

Also, "sabi", I thought, meant "rust". Rust can figure into wabi sabi, I think.

I believe it's related to the idea of "nature". Nature is imperfect, but that imperfection is part of its beauty. People know bonsai -- bonsai's beauty comes from it's asymmetry and imperfection, which recall nature.

Now, here, I'm going to go out on a limb here and analyze that paragraph. The writer's sense of nature seems to be embodied in the eagle, sun, river, and rocks and trees. I didn't get the sense of wabi sabi in what he wrote -- rather, it recalled to me enlightenment writers experiencing the sublime qualities of nature.

Wabisabi would be something like: the boat is weathered but strong, and the bolts holding the boat together are rusted, and there are streaky rust stains along the wood. The power of nature, an old boat on a day trip.

Philip Brewer's picture

You're right that the nature scene isn't the best example of wabi sabi.  In the book the author uses it to talk about the difference between experiencing something and trying to capture it--they came back later to repeat their trip, this time with cameras, and the result wasn't what they'd hoped for.

I picked it to quote because it was a nicely compact example of the author's evocative writing.

Yes, wabi sabi is all about imperfection, all about wear and tear, all about impermanence, all about things going unfinished.  Simplicity is just a piece of a whole--but it's a piece that's important to me.

Guest's picture
wildgift

I should add that the boat is within scene, not alone. A rusty boat by itself is not wabi-sabi.

Guest's picture
wildgift

btw, i really like the book reviews. they're often of books i've never heard of.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'll keep them up, as often as I find books worth talking about.

Guest's picture

love this review and peeks my interest!
I love books and this sounds right up my alley
going to see if I can get it free on "the swap"
XOXOXO
anjie

Guest's picture
sally

Your review piqued my interest, too. ;)

Guest's picture
sally

But, really, I think piqued might be too strong a word. After all, while I was excited by your review of the book, I wouldn't exactly call said review provoking or challenging. Let's just say that you roused my interest.
Thus endeth the lesson.

Guest's picture

Thank you for this; I'm very intrigued.