The Simple Life
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The Simple Life

Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture

Title Details

Pages: 344

Trim size: 6.120in x 9.250in



Pub Date: 07/01/2007

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2975-8

List Price: $34.95

The Simple Life

Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture

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  • Description
  • Reviews

Our current less-is-more impulse may have contemporary trappings, says David E. Shi, but the underlying ideal has been around for centuries. From Puritans and Quakers to Boy Scouts and hippies, our quest for the simple life is an enduring, complex tradition in American culture. Looking across more than three centuries of want and prosperity, war and peace, Shi introduces a rich cast of practitioners and proponents of the simple life, among them Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Addams, Scott and Helen Nearing, and Jimmy Carter.

In the diversity of their aspirations and failings, Shi finds that nothing is simple about our mercurial devotion to the ideal of plain living and high thinking. "Difficult choices are the price of simplicity," he writes in the book's revised epilogue. We may hedge a bit in the practice of simple living, and now and then we are driven by motives no deeper than nostalgia. Shi stresses, however, that the diverse efforts to avoid anxious social striving and compulsive materialism have been essential to the nation's spiritual health.

A masterly book—as fascinating as it is educational . . . Shi combines impressive scholarship with intriguing anecdotes and insights into the lives of presidents, religious leaders, naturalists, industrialists, and others who praised plain living.

Charlotte Observer

Shi's genius is in tying diverse social and cultural threads together and weaving an excellent book about the history of ideas.


Exemplary . . . Shi's study can serve as a handbook to guide us in facing the insistent and inevitable challenges of the future.


Shi manages time and again in specific instances to be lively and illuminating.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Mr. Shi's study is interesting for the light it sheds on America's moral development.

New York Times Book Review

Meticulously researched . . . it should stand as a seminal study of an enduring theme in U.S. social history.


A candid, informative, scholarly examination throughout American social history of the drive to simplify one’s life and find meaning by the means of deliberately giving up excess material vanity . . . a thoughtful book, filled with carefully assessed observations, The Simple Life is strongly recommended reading for anyone contemplating simplification of their personal lifestyles and circumstances as a means of improving the quality of their lives and themselves.

Midwest Book Review

The most recent expression of a complex intellectual tradition which has shaped American cultures for centuries. If many of Shi's sources for this tradition are familiar, he does a masterful job of bringing them together.

The Nation

About the Author/Editor

DAVID E. SHI is the president of Furman University, where he is also a professor of history. His books include In Search of the Simple Life, Facing Facts, and The Bell Tower and Beyond.