120 in 2010: Twelve by Twelve (unfinished).


Looking for an opinion from the hive mind: Do you finish reading a book if you know it might be bad for you?

I picked up Twelve by Twelve because I was interested in sustainable living. About halfway through it I went a little crazy and was giving serious thought to abandoning everything and going to live in a cabin in the woods. When discussing the prospect of living in the woods, even thinking it’s a viable option is a level of consideration that constitutes serious thought.

William Powers is an eco-activist who moved back to New York after mounting waves of crusades in advocacy of the Global Southern Rainforests. He was discontent with the conditions of modern urban living. He’s a young, healthy, white man living in the biggest city in the world. In short, he had everything, but felt that “everything” was propped up on a system of waste and consumerism that is dubious at best and eco-cidal at worst. So he heard about a friend of his family that lived on $11,000 a year in a 12 x 12’ shack in an undisclosed location in the North Carolina woods (12 x12’ being the dimensions the NC state government deems just small enough to not pay property taxes). This book is about his search for meaning in his life beyond what’s considered the American dream.

Going to live in a cabin in the woods is what crazy people do. But are they crazy or is the rest of the world crazy? For me, going to live in a sustainable 12 x 12 would mean saying goodbye to my girlfriend, a lot of friends I keep in contact with strictly online, my publication and a lot of other things in my life that I love deeply. I’ve since stopped reading the book and I feel like I’m back to stasis. But part of me feels like I’m maintaining willful ignorance and that I should finish the book regardless of the ramifications it may have on my brain and life.

I got thinking about this post as I went to a reading last week where one of the writers on a panel said that non-fiction terrifies him. So I ask you, internet: Do you stop reading a book if it’s detrimental to your status quo?  Is constantly questioning your own status quo a good thing? What if you’re happy? Do you question the cost of your happiness?


  1. Andrea says:

    Look, the ability to maintain functional sanity in the modern world, while still engaging in mainstream media outlets is based on the capacity for a certain amount of willful ignorance. We all know that terrible things are happening. Do you think about the inhumane state of the workers in South American plantations when you buy a Dole banana? Nope. You eat your banana. Really, when it comes down to it, everything is terrible.

    Go ahead and keep reading the book, but probably cut out any coverage of the oil spill or human rights abuses in Yemen while you’re at it.

  2. I saw a documentary about living off the grid a while back… to the point where you eat certain food certain time of the year for sustainability. Even went as far as eating animals before Rigga Mortis.

    Thx for the suggestion!

  3. chris says:

    Andrea: I like your comment, it rings pretty true to me. I’m interested in this threshold where people are aware of the terrible nature of the world and yet still participate in terrible things, meaning where is the line for most people? How far do you go before you’re not comfortable in being complicit anymore? I’d wager the line is pretty far for most people. I try to do what I can to keep a pretty clean conscience, but it often feels like making one conscious decision to do something good often triggers a list of unforeseen, fucked up consequences. But I still try. At what point do people stop trying and just give in? Or give up? This book talks a little about how the will to do good things has to come from a place of measured serenity (a POV Powers calls *cringe* “Warrior Presence” ) otherwise you’re just as likely to get burnt out or disillusioned.

    Lea: Sounds cool, what’s it called?

  4. davidpeak says:

    Was that me who said that thing about non-fiction being terrifying? I think I meant that it terrifies me to write it, to actively build something out of self-reflection and exploration. It can be genuinely uncomfortable.

    But in terms of reading non-fiction, I think it’s important for me to absorb things that challenge my worldviews. This has been something I’ve been easing myself into–reading more non-fiction alongside fiction. And not just Harper’s, but non-fiction books, too.

    I recently read D’Agata’s About a Mountain. A few days later, between segments of a reality program about people doing stuff with food, I saw an ad for Las Vegas. It was shocking. Here were these casinos, these lights, these promises of life-enriching sin, and yet no one mentioned toxic waste, Yucca mountain, or how it’s likely that the city will run out of water in the next few decades. A small moment, maybe. But I also had a glass of tap-water in my hand.

    Having spent time with D’Agata’s book, that allowed that terror to bloom in me while watching something as harmless as an ad on the computer screen. There’s a real power to that. Something to be said, I guess.

  5. chris says:

    Yup, that was you dude. I should have specified that’s what you meant but your statement took a different meaning to me due to where my mind was.

    I agree with reading things that challenge how you think. A number of nonfiction books I’ve read over the years have shaped the way I see the world. But I tend to take things to heart and a lot of people make a lot of money writing books with the intent of scaring the shit out of people until they cough up dough. At what point to do you call bullshit on something? And are you calling bullshit because you truly believe it’s bullshit or are you doing so to protect your sanity? I got no answers. But it feels good to talk about at least.

  6. Andrea says:

    Chris: I think about that same sort of thing a lot… Also, not just about awareness and where the line is drawn, but what it actually means to “do” or “not do” something to contribute to or somewhat ease the terribleness… For example, with off the grid living like you’re talking about here; just dropping out and living on $11k a year in the wilderness. That sort of begs a lot of other questions for me. Say you have a relatively high earning power and career that you give up to drop off the grid… Is that more noble than, say, donating half of your salary to non-profts that are digging wells and giving micro loans? Does it actually contribute to the world in any meaningful way, or make any significant dent in consumerism, or is it just an extreme method of easing one’s own guilt and absolving oneself of any responsibility toward a global community?

  7. chris says:

    Andrea: Yes, yes, yes. I’m on the same page.

    This is what I’m thinking about: Is philanthropy, charitable giving, and volunteerism about actively participating in noble acts, or is it about feeling good about yourself? I hold the opinion that anyone who markets any product as “green” is not appealing to a consumer that wants to make the right decision for the earth, but instead, making a decision to ease their guilt towards destroying the planet. If we really cared, we’d be howling at the steps of Capitol Hill for them to pass legislation. Ranting now. Anyway.

    That’s a great question you pose, and one that may be addressed later on in the book (another reason I should keep reading). I will give Powers credit that he doesn’t stop questioning every sort of impact his actions make. He’s aware that the plane he’s flying to the Brazilian rain forest is the cause of the greenhouse gasses he’s virulently trying to stop. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he tackles this question.

    But you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as the largest question for the book: Is living 12 x 12 an effort to get all Mahatma-Ghandi-be-the-change-you-want-to-see, or is it just giving up, withdrawing from life? Is it more effective to take yourself out of the game, than the change the game from within? I’m leaning toward the latter. If you don’t like your situation, you need to try to change it.

  8. ibmgalaxy says:

    the same question could be asked about another blotter of lsd. will it kill you? probably not if the last one hasn’t. will it chuck you a bit further down the rabbit hole? almost definitely.

    i always keep reading but since i can’t exactly explain why i can’t presume to tell you to do the same. i just do and usually regret.

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