Tiny Houses

In the movie Field of Dreams, the disembodied voice of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson famously proclaimed, “If you build it, he will come.” We Americans have adopted a less inspirational but equally emphatic motto: if we build a big house, we will fill it—with our stuff! (nod to George Carlin). In our quest for more luxurious and voluminous abodes, many of us have come to realize that no matter how much living space we occupy, we can’t shake the conviction that more equals better. But most of us have too much already!

The fact is, the average American house has grown consistently in size, decade by decade. I won’t trouble you with numbers—as librarians you can easily look that up if need be—but suffice it to say that, overall, our houses continue to be built progressively grander.

So in the midst of our love affair with large homes, where does the tiny homes movement fit in? “Tiny houses? What are you talking about?” Good question. Let’s trace the history, along with titles that have evolved to reflect our thinking.

The idea of small structures germinated, perhaps, with the “back to the land” movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The high interest in appropriate technology spawned the first edition of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. This was followed by the emergence of Mother Earth News in 1970 and a plethora of book titles that were designed to teach inspired young people how to live on (or off) the land, individually or in communal settings. Housing was often bricolage: small, eclectic, funky, and hand-built. Lloyd Kahn, who worked closely with Stewart Brand as shelter editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, formed his own small publishing house (pun intended!), Shelter Publications, and issued the book Shelter in 1973, with sketches and photos of various handmade dwellings around the country as well as throughout the world. Shelter inspired thousands of Americans, as did Kahn’s work in the Whole Earth Catalog.

What did other authors have to say about this movement? In 1987, Lester Walker’s Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All hit bookstores. Filled with photos, drawings, and architectural plans, it inspired vast numbers of seekers, dreamers, and builders. The next key title to appear was Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House, followed by its spinoffs. It appeared in 1998 and moved the focus from funky to stylish beauty within relatively small well-designed architectural eye candy.

In the midst of this a philosophy of “more with less” started to show up in book titles. Its message was intertwined with that of simplicity and an uncluttered life. Does this not sound a wee bit like the voice of Henry David Thoreau in Walden? “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” As a reminder, Thoreau lived for a time in a tiny one-room cabin he built near the shore of Walden Pond, a 64-acre lake in eastern Massachusetts. Tens of thousands of us have been inspired by Thoreau’s words, myself included. They planted seeds in American culture that helped the tiny house and simple living movements to germinate.

Over the past decade, authors have authored, and publishers have published, numerous books about tiny houses. Notable among them is Rizzoli’s slick and enticing Tiny Houses, by Mimi Zeiger in 2009, which was less about a simple shack and more about a sophisticated blend of natural setting, glass, wood, prefabricated, and modular sections to create enticing homes under 1,000 square feet. Fantasy material to inspire dreams, get the heart pumping, and serve as catalyst for the imagination to flow. People began to ask if they could find an affordable version of this ideal for themselves, something perhaps more practical and doable. Architects, authors, and printing presses have enthusiastically responded.

TV has joined in as well. HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” started a few years ago, along with their “Tiny House Hunters.” We librarians know what television does to generate interest in books.

Some of us thinking folks have come to realize that whatever space we occupy, we have a human tendency to fill it. It is a hardwired trait, and we know that it’s tough to override genetics. Ultimately, the tiny home movement, which began with an aspiration for a simple life on the land in a small shelter, evolved into a movement about becoming more at peace with ever-expanding urban surroundings—while still eschewing the clutter we found in our parents’ and grandparents’ basements, attics, and garages. In short, we came to embrace Pogo’s famous phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To have what we truly want, we must let go of superfluous possessions.

And so here it is in a nutshell: some of us Americans want less: fewer rooms and less clutter and not so much gleaming stainless steel and rare tropical-sourced wooden adornments. We feel smothered under so much affluence and so many possessions. We are experiencing a visceral attraction to not just simple living, but small spaces and simple desires. We say: “Entice me with the possibility of a life lived well in 500 to 750 square feet. If New Yorkers can do it, if Third World throngs can do it, why can’t I somehow adapt and capture a small bit of simplicity in my own small space?”

The trend remains hot today in 2018. This list of books offers libraries an opportunity to evaluate their collections and add some popular titles about tiny houses. Although library customers may never live in a tiny house, there is something to be said for daydreaming. Those floor plans and photos are certainly fuel for inspiration and imagination. What use is a life without those qualities that can be kindled within us by a good book?