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Books Worth Having: General Self-Sufficiency

When the DH and I were first married and moved to our first (rented) house in the country, our self-sufficiency skills were pretty meager. I had done a little bit of vegetable gardening at my parents’ house, under tutelage at the level of “just buy a bag of Scotts™ Turf-Builder and throw it out there”. My mom was definitely from the ‘buy a plant and find a hole to put it in” school.

And though our landlord was very encouraging (“Sure, you can rip up the lawn for a garden”), we felt the need to get some books because we wanted to ‘do things’ but did not know anyone who actually knew how. Over the years, we have collected a pretty extensive library of books which we have read over and over and consulted many times over. We haven’t felt the need to look for any books currently so we thought we’d take a look at what is being marketing right now on the shelves of what would probably be what most people have available to them unless they are going to the Internet. A lot of people buy books off the internet, but if you are looking for something specific, it really helps if you can go to the bookstore, plunk yourself in front of the shelf, pull down books and take a look and a bit of a read for yourself.

Today’s Topic: General Self-Sufficiency
Now, it’s obvious from my looking at the books that are on the shelves right now, brand new, that ‘self-sufficiency’ is definitely one of those ‘in the eye of the beholder’ positions. The range seems to run from the level of “How to handle survival after a nuclear attack” all the way through “How to slaughter your own pigs” and everything in between. So, a lot depends on what exactly someone’s goals actually are and where you are living. Because, if you are living in the suburbs, having a book that has general home and family stuff, gardening, a bit of home repair and maintenance, energy saving and so on is going probably be useful for someone who has never picked up a hammer or canned food. Having a book that delves deeply into radiation disease, setting up military level home protection systems and so on might not be your cup of tea. Or, it might, if you are into weaponry and thinking ahead…way…way…ahead.

This post is not meant as an in-depth review of every book out there. Basically, the DH and I walked into our local ‘extremely large big-box national chain bookstore’ and pulled every book we could find off the shelves that seemed to be handling certain topics and sat down and looked through them. We looked for certain topics that WE feel people who want to be more self-sufficient would want to see and at a level that is accessible, understandable, and in enough detail that a family could actually perform the task and complete it. No book is going to be truly encyclopedic but we felt it had to be good value and give people enough information to do the jobs; if readers want books that are more specialized, there are certainly books on specific topics out there, but for the true beginner, someone who perhaps is a little concerned or fearful, here are our recommendations for a good first book.

For those who really appreciate having photographic ‘how to’, detailed diagrams, uplifting copy, etc., the best book of the lot is:
Dick and James Strawbridge’s Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century ($30.00 retail; DK Publishing, New York, NY.
DK Publishing is to DIY books today what Readers Digest was 20-30 years ago: big, glossy, informative books which weigh a ton, filled with meaty material. Their position is obviously, “If you can only get one book, we want it to be OURS and we will make sure you get value.”

What put this book at the top of the heap for me was the totally realistic and pragmatic tone, a recognition that most people who are just starting out, who most likely did not grow up on a farm or even out in the country, not only don’t have a lot of skills or confidence, but also might have very…mmm…strong feelings about things like doing their own slaughtering. This is a British book; the father and son team of Dick and James Strawbridge have a UK television series called “It’s Not Easy Being Green” where they are working on a 300 year old derelict property. But everywhere I looked, the techniques and advice being given were right on the mark for people anywhere. Two big thumbs up.

Second Place, and only because I am extremely nostalgic about Storey Publishing is this compendium:
Country Wisdom and Know How ($19.95 retail, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing, New York, New York)
Storey Publishing is one of the original ‘back to the land/do it yourself’ publishers in the United States. Their series of ‘Country Wisdom Bulletins’ (single topic booklets) have grown, expanded and been sold everywhere from through the mail to the counters at home and garden and farm centers since 1983. What Black Dog and Levanthal have done (and don’t misapprehend me here; it’s a clever thing to do) is to collect all of this material in the bulletins and other Storey publications, and put it into a paperback book the size of almost a newspaper – like the old Whole Earth Catalog. To do this, they are using extremely small print on the page, which is newsprint (which is not exactly a high contrast medium), and squeezing down the diagrams and drawings. Little showing of ‘how to’ and frankly, I doubt if they updated any of the material. This is referred to in some places as ‘old wine in new bottles’. I always felt Storey’s information was boiled down and very useful but with this font size, they really should have packaged this with a magnifying glass. Great material, almost encyclopedic but not current and not user friendly.

Third Place, or Top of the Heap if your goal is to be prepared for alien or zombie invasions or having to live off the land or dealing with natural or national disasters, is this book:

The Big Book of Self-Reliant Living, Walter Szykitka (Lyon Press, Guildfor, CT)

The Table of Contents says it all:
1) First Aid
2) Survival
a. Radiation Contamination
b. Survival On Land
c. Survival At Sea
d. Emergencies At Home
3) Health and Exercise (includes such topics as malaria and lead poisoning)
4) Food and Nutrition (includes preserving and drying)
5) Farm and Home (includes gardening, orcharding, and home repairs)
6) Tools, how to use them and repairs

If you are the sort of person who has a lot of concerns about whether or not your family is prepared for emergencies or some sort of disaster scenario, this is a book you might want to have on hand and use. And lest anyone mistake me, most American families are totally unprepared for what can happen.
Example: 9/11. Families all over the United States who had friends and relatives in New York and Washington, DC were suddenly unable to contact, find or assess what was happening to their loved ones. People were being evacuated; no one knew what was going on. It was horrifying.
Example: Hurricanes. Every couple of years (and sometimes in the same year), we have major hurricanes and people do not have any other plan other than putting up plywood on the windows. Thousands of families got stuck trying to evacuate from vulnerable areas in Texas the year after Katrina because…they ended up on the Interstates in a giant traffic jam and they ran out of fuel in their cars. There is nothing wrong with sitting your family down and talking about family emergency plans. This book contains information to help you through the process.

Books Worth Looking For in Used Book Shops:
If you are interested in looking at used books, Storey Publications and Readers Digest Books from 20-30 years ago are definitely worth looking at. Rodale Press books on gardening topics from that period are also excellent. Be careful about books which are frankly dated – “Five Acres and Independence” was probably one of the biggest sellers during the Great Depression but is practically useless today except in a general sense. The advice, product recommendations (DDT, anyone?), and so on leave it truly in the realm of ‘for popular historians only’.

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  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for the post i have dick and james’ book i was a big fan of dick through scrapheap challenge and the work he did with green solutions

    I’m going to have to check out country wisdom and know how

    again thanks for pointing it out


  2. Victor says:

    I do a lot of my own repairs and maintenance, so keep a number of useful books around.

    I recently got a neat surprise from my Mom, in the form of an old book I used to have. Back when I was too young to fully appreciate it, she had gotten me a nice manual on Briggs and Stratton engine repair. At the time, I did a little playing with an old engine, but soon lost interest with it.

    Now, I have two Briggs and Stratton engines I already maintain and work on regularly, without any good resource for it. So, it was a pretty neat re-gift, as it were.

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