Book review: Scratch Beginnings

While I was decluttering myself of half my possessions in the depths of my mother’s basement, my sister was doing likewise to prepare for our upcoming yardsale.  Ironically, my decluttering and newfound minimalism resulted in me picking up some of the things she was going through, including a couple of books that caught my eye.

One book, Scratch Beginnings, has a cover featuring a young man wearing an undershirt and cargo shorts next to an empty duffel bag, and the subtitle “Me, $25, and a search for the American Dream.” I was intrigued.

The book is a reflection on a one-year experiment done by Adam Shepard, who outlines his project in the introduction of the book:

Here is my premise:

I am going to start almost literally from scratch with one 8′ x 10′ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back.  Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States outside my home state of North Carolina.  I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a “regular” member of society.  After one year, for my project to be successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate), have $2,500 in cash, and, most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances by either going to school or starting my own business (Shepard, p. xiv).

This is not a book that is, on its surface, about minimalism.  It’s about a guy overcoming his circumstances to get ahead and succeed.  However, right away, minimalist ideas were popping right off the page at me.

I am really, really frustrated with the poor attitudes that seem to have swept over my peer group.  Frustrated with hearing “I don’t have” rather than “Let’s see what I can do with what I do have” (Shepard, p. xiii).

Making the most of what you have is a great way to look at your life and your situation.  While Adam Shepard was working toward having more, it wasn’t for the sake of more, or the sake of stuff.  He was basically resetting his life and seeing if he could work to get the things he needed.  I think a side effect of this reboot was actually cherishing the things he had, having honestly worked to get them, and having suffered for them.  He did not work his way up from nothing to having a collection of sports memorabilia, or a wardrobe of clothes, or a library of books.  He worked his way up from nothing to have just what he needed to get by — a place to live, a car to drive to work, and enough savings to support him in case of emergency.

Lots of his observations struck a chord with me, including:

Who did I have to impress? As long as my pants could remain free from stains and odors, I didn’t care if I got caught wearing the same outfit every other day.  That’s what all of my new friends were doing (Shepard, p. 74).

A lot of us spend our lives living beyond our means.  We rack up credit card debt and spend money on material items and vacations that we can’t quite afford. … And we live in luxury homes and condos that we can’t even enjoy, because we have to work overtime to cover the mortgage payment. Why? (Shepard, p. 90).

So I would head to the bottom of the downtown peninsula and search for things to do.  Simple things.  Anything that didn’t cost money.  I was easy to please, and that alone alleviated the distress of what others might consider a disgraceful social life… (Shepard, p. 111).

Cheap?  Definitely.  But that’s how I had to be.  Every $5 and $10 I could save might not matter so much for that one day, but it would be so valuable in the long run (Shepard, p. 126).

While Scratch Beginnings is really a book about poverty and hard work and making positive changes, it definitely resonated with me as a minimalist.  The idea that it is possible to have a functional wardrobe, living situation, and social life without having to spend excessive amounts of  money on those things is a great lesson that can benefit everyone.

When you don’t have much, and everything you do have is a product of your own hard work and priorities and commitment, your possessions are that much more important.  Plus, you can avoid debt and break free of the overbearing consumerist culture we live in today.  This book made me think about my possessions and my life in a broader context.  I have so much, and some people have nothing (or close to it).  Why do I need all this stuff?  What is it doing for me?

I do recommend the book — it’s a quick read, and it really offers some food for thought about hard work, starting over, and whether or not we really need all this stuff to be happy and successful in life.

Have you read a book that spoke to you as a minimalist?

14 thoughts on “Book review: Scratch Beginnings

  1. I came across your blog through and I really appreciate all your thoughts and basically walking us through your process. I am in the beginning of the process of shedding excess so it’s really insightful to read about the process instead of coming across someone saying this is how I live.

    1. Christine, I am so glad I can help! I feel sort of self-centered posting photos like “This is my bathroom before, THIS is my bathroom after!” (check back in the next few weeks for this particular bathroom post :P) but I figure if I can help one person really examine their own stash of stuff, then I’m doing okay with the blog 🙂

      Let me know if there’s a room or area you’re having particular trouble with and I will post something to show you how I did it, or at least some tips and tricks I have garnered that might help. Thank you for your comment!

  2. I have officially just added this book to my library holds list! Thanks for the info!

    P.S. I am that person that likes those “before and after” photos of things minimalized! ;-D

    1. Well stay tuned, because there are a bunch coming up 🙂

      I am so glad you’re interested in the book — it was really a great read, I couldn’t put it down! I hope you enjoy it too.

      1. I just finished up my bachelor’s degree last month and now I’ve been on a reading spree, now that I actually have some free time where I’m not working on a senior paper. I just finished “The 100 Things Challenge” and am going to start “No Impact Man” in about…oh, an hour. 😀 So YAY for more book ideas!!

  3. Cheers, Caitlin! And thank you for reading (and reviewing) my book.

    I think it is easy to be a minimalist when you are broke and struggling to get by. When you have a little more money and the means to purchase those things that you don’t need, it becomes harder to declutter. A true minimalist–as you know–can afford a bunch of crap, but doesn’t buy it.

    I want a pool in my backyard, and I want pretty plants on my front porch. And maybe one day I will have them. But even if I get there, I will understand that I don’t have to have a bunch of extra “stuff” in the meantime. That is what my experience in SCRATCH BEGINNINGS taught me. Pick the couple or few luxuries you want, and fill the gap with efficiency/minimalism.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Adam — those are great words of advice regarding filling the gap with efficiency. What a wonderful way to think about minimalism!

      I didn’t realize my sister had actually met you when I picked up the book from her, so I was a bit floored when she said she passed the blog post along to you. I’m very glad you were able to read and respond to my review!

  4. I went through “organizing” and “simplifying” but to me they were just shopping opportunities – baskets to organize and decorative items in the primitive style. It wasn’t until I started reading theminimalistmom and other blogs, plus Francine Jay’s book The Joy of Less that something clicked. I got rid of another car load of stuff yesterday, and brought home a check from the consignment store.
    Right now I have books all over, trying to decide which ones to keep. Having a lot of books used to comfort me, but now they are a symbol of the things I should do. Everywhere I look, I see things I should do and I long for the day when my home is uncluttered, and only has items that I use and love.

  5. I think blogs on minimalism have helped me the most on my minimalist journey. Reading people’s real life experiences guides me in making choices in my life – even if the circumstances are different. 

    Plus, it makes me feel like I’m not alone. I’m the only minimalist in my circle of friends and family. I’ve had people say, “I could NEVER be a minimalist.” And I think to myself, how lucky we are to have that choice…or perhaps not.

    Sometimes I feel we’re all just a little bit spoiled – myself included.  Getting to decide to be this way or another, while billions more people have no choice at all. 

    I will be checking this book out. It sounds very, very interesting. Thanks for the suggestion!

    1. Great observations! I also have people in my life who tell me they could never live with so little stuff, and I still think I have too much. I hope you get a chance to read the book and enjoy it 🙂 Thank you for your comment!

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