Review: The Wonderbox

Engaging suggestions for leading a much better life


By Rebecca Abrams, March 9, 2012
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Charge of the sales brigade: but why buy items you know you don't need?

Charge of the sales brigade: but why buy items you know you don't need?

By Roman Kriznaric
Profile Books, £14.99

'The principal and proper work of history is to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future." Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes's maxim underpins Roman Kriznaric's cultural history-cum-lifestyle guide.

The title refers to the Renaissance-era cabinet of curiosities, or wunderkammer, in which each object told a story of some kind. The Wonderbox, likewise, assembles a collection of stories and ideas from the past to "instruct and enable" us to live better in the present.

Fortunately, Kriznaric turns out to be just what you'd want from a guide on a historical tour of the good life: knowledgeable, congenial company, and passionate about his subject.

Each chapter surveys the evolution of cultural attitudes on a specific topic, such as love, money, time, work or travel, with examples of individuals we can learn from today: from 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen to 18th-century Quaker, John Woolman, to 20th-century C P Lewis, Klan chief turned civil rights activist. Josiah Wedgwood is exposed as the villain who brought us time-sheets and clocking-in.

Kriznaric's overriding message is: you don't have to do things a certain way simply because that's the way you've always done things. His approach is incremental. Instead of seeing evenings and weekends as "time off" work, reframe them as "time on" life. Rather than expand your horizons with expensive holidays, strike up conversation with a complete stranger once a week. And don't enrich your life by buying more useless items you know you don't need - hone your neglected senses of smell, hearing, taste.

The author comes from a long line of rabbis, which perhaps explains his talent for making history and philosophy so accessible. His grandmother, Naomi Louvish, fled Romania in the 1920s for China, then Australia, where she made a name for herself with radical radio broadcasts, and there's more than a trace of her influence in Kriznaric's ardent anti-materialism and passionate objection to the modern tyranny of clock time - arguably the ultimate capitalist invention. All clocks in his household have been removed or covered.

He also advocates regular periods of abstinence from productive activity and clock-bound living. But of course, the Jews have a long, venerable tradition of that already - it's called Shabbat.

A beguiling mixture of lightly worn scholarship and unashamedly eclectic offerings, the book is driven by Kriznaric's unshakeable optimism about daily life's improvability. Even if The Wonderbox doesn't change your life, as an antidote to current economic gloom, political corruption and world-wide violence, the utter lack of cynicism that suffuses its pages is bound to cheer you up.

Rebecca Abrams's books include 'Touching Distance'

    Last updated: 11:09am, March 9 2012