Life-altering experiences can come in odd ways. For Eric Brende, a Yale graduate, everything changed on a bus ride from Boston to Kansas a decade ago, when he met a man in a wide-brimmed black hat who "looked Amish." The man explained that his Mennonite-style community prohibits all motors - no electricity, telephones, or motor vehicles.
Click! Before you could say "kerosene lamp" or "horse-drawn carriage," Brende was making a not-so-modest proposal to live with the group for 18 months. As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wanted to discover how little technology was actually necessary for human comfort and leisure.
The group agreed to his request. Soon Brende and Mary, his bride of 10 days, were driving into the cloistered village, "deep in America's heartland," and settling into a white bungalow stripped of all amenities. Goodbye lights, running water, refrigerator, washer, dryer, microwave, and central heat.
As Brende describes their unusual adventure in "Better Off," a giddy enthusiasm colors their early days. He masters the art of cutting the grass with a push mower. His wife claims that the beat of a treadle sewing machine makes her more alert. Both insist that operating a crank-handled washing machine is "really rather cathartic." They even savor the pleasure of canning food together. When chores are done, Brende reads "The Education of Henry Adams" by the flicker of a kerosene lamp.
Ah, the good old days.
As weeks pass, their waistlines shrink, their muscles grow firm, and their satisfaction increases. "I was beginning to see evidence that a world without modern technology need not be any harder," Brende explains. "It might well be easier. And more fun."
Yet gradually, his gee-whiz tone is tempered. Weary of the sullenness that besets him after a string of gray wintry days, he concedes that "a standard 60-watt incandescent light bulb might have helped."
And then there's the biggest test of all - threshing season. "Threshing wheat without modern equipment had shocked me out of my senses," he writes, calling it "a form of naked physical toil that only a glutton for punishment would willingly engage in." So punishing is the work under a scorching sun that he collapses in bed for three days. When he asks, "Was there a need for more machinery?" a reader can only nod a silent yes.
Still, as the Brendes grow their own food in the garden, join forces with neighbors for collective tasks, and await the birth of their first child, friendships develop. The book offers fascinating insights into the workings of a Mennonite community - the rhythms of daily life, the camaraderie, the quiet politeness of children, and the four-hour church services.
But here, as everywhere, domestic squabbles and tensions develop. On one stifling summer day, as the men gather for a barn-raising, the women crowd into steamy kitchens to prepare food for the group. One weary wife probably echoes the sentiments of others when she shouts to her husband, "You'd better never have a work bee in this weather again. So much cooking in this heat."
All of which underscores Brende's original question: Is life without all the technological advances we take for granted - in this case air-conditioning - really better? Brende is correct when he argues that "a modern automatic machine is no mere inert tool. It gobbles up energy; it demands care and maintenance. It not only serves but must be served." He also makes a persuasive case for simplicity: "By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it."
Yet the couple's own ambivalence surfaces briefly during their initial reluctance to part with their red Ford Escort, "our last thread to our former lives." In time, they do buy a horse and carriage and find at least temporary pleasure in this slower, open-air transportation.
Although the Brendes returned to the wired world after a year in the community they dub the "Minimites," their noble experiment continues to shape their new lives in St. Louis. Eric is a soapmaker and rickshaw driver, and Mary home schools their three children. They shun television, computers, and videos, and drive only when they must.
In the evening, they still sometimes turn on a kerosene lamp and read by the fire. "By switching off the electric light," Brende notes, "I think we see a bit better."
Brende's prose is occasionally overwrought, and he indulges in a few too many wide-eyed epiphanies about the joys of nature. When he catches his first glimpse of a pumpkin growing in his very own patch, for instance, he rhapsodizes: "I gazed at it with the adoration of a father beholding his firstborn child." Similarly, a firefly in the house puts the couple under a "spell," leaving them "feeling snugger knowing a little fairy was guarding our cornice."
Still, excesses aside, the Brendes' experience may stimulate readers to think about the role modern technology plays in their own lives. But rather than inspire them to renounce it, the book is more likely to produce a surge of gratitude for the warm glow of a lamp and the convenience of appliances that free them for other activities. Most of us will probably always feel "better off" with the power switched on.
• Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.