Book Review: Homesteading ed. by Abigail R. Gehring

 I rushed to order this from the library when it popped up in my search of their database – the back cover states that Abigail R. Gehring was the editor of Back to Basics (second and third editions),our personal “bible” of self-sufficiency. Sure enough, it’s laid out in the same hardbound landscape format as the Reader’s Digest original, first published the year I was born, but I have to report that the resemblance doesn’t make it much farther than that. I am not entirely comfortable writing unfavorable reviews, but Matt encouraged me to give my opinion, good or bad. I realize that the topic of Homesteading is not exactly the same as that of Back to Basics (subtitled How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills), and therefore a direct comparison may not be really fair, but I think that Homesteading is definitely trying to market itself as the successor or companion to Back to Basics – copying its style and invoking its name on the cover to draw in those who have heard Back to Basics spoken of in hallowed tones. Also, I feel that Homesteading doesn’t really live up to its own title. I think that “Backyard Farming” or “Hobby Farming” or the like would have been a better title. Everything in this book is on a smaller scale than I anticipated from the bold title – everything, that is, except the photographs.
Full-page photos take up a full 40 of the book’s 456 pages, sometimes interrupting lists of resources without reason, and only 39 pages are picture-free (and that includes the index). Almost every page has a picture, and some are crowded with as many as six. Don’t get me wrong – illustrations can be essential, such as in identifying edible plants, showing steps in the canning process, or to show the appropriate layout of a chicken coop – but there are so many non-essential pictures in this book just for the sake of aesthetics that there’s little room left for information. Interestingly, having been padded out with all these photos, Homesteading manages to exactly equal the page count of the predecessor on whose shirttails it is riding.
Some of the topics overlap, such as gardening, food preservation, energy, crafts, and structure building. Given the larger typeface, more prevalent photos, and somewhat superficial coverage, there is less useful information in Homesteading. Another feature that made it into Homesteading is the sidebar interviews meant to complement the articles into which they are inserted. These interviews sort of “back up” the articles by giving testimony from people who use whatever skill was taught in the article: explaining why they love it, how they got started, and, in many cases, how it saves or earns them money. In Back to Basics there are 17 interviews (about one interview for every four articles), in Homesteading there are 2. I generally preach quality over quantity – but Homesteading lacks both. The articles are not as in-depth as those in Back to Basics, which is in itself just an introduction to its topics, nor are they as numerous. Crafts, for instance. Homesteading offers 15 (I am not counting “Marketing Your Skills” for obvious reasons, or “Tying Knots”, which I believe belongs in a different section, but I am counting “Stenciling” which I think should have been in the “Crafts” section and not in “Well-Being”), Back to Basics offers 18 (excluding cooking, which should have been in the food section).
One more complaint: In addition to being less in-depth, the articles in Homesteading are “DIY lite”. Yes, they may teach you to knit, but Back to Basics, teaches you to dye, spin, and weave your own fabric. Homesteading gives an overview of simple structures (toolsheds, animal housing, and the like) but Back to Basics tells you how to find, evaluate and buy land; and covers just about every step involved in building your own log, adobe, or stone house.
I hate to be entirely negative on any subject, and I can’t say the book is a total loss even if I did find it rather disappointing. There were some interesting nuggets such as how to build a pottery wheel and two types of kilns, and up-to-date items such as how to start a community garden or food co-op. My overall impression was that this was a gentrified version of the classic – packed with glossy stock photos and trendy, non-essential, topics like feng shui and interior design – but perhaps a good gateway to the subject of self-sufficiency for those just dipping in their toes.
– Amanda
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