Margin Book Review

MarginPicture your favorite book in your hands, you're in your favorite reading spot, with your favorite drink. It's your favorite season of the year, and it's quiet, peaceful. You run your hands over the book's binding, your fingers touch the bookmark. You open the book to where you left off. Now look at the words on the page. You've seen this page, or pages like it hundreds of times, perhaps thousands. Word after word is lined up on the page, and there's something on that page you've probably never noticed before.

The margins.

Imagine opening that book and seeing no margins on the page. Imagine what that page would look like if the words ran right to the side of the page with as little margin as possible. How would you feel? What would you think of that page? Would it look better to you? Easier to read?

Think about it. Why do we have margins? They really are a waste, aren't they? If we put words right against the edge of the page, imagine how much paper we could save. If you look at a page in a book from a strictly performance based perspective, margins are indeed a waste, and an inefficient use of paper. Words go on paper, paper makes books. Therefore the more words you can fit on the page, the more books you can make, the less paper you have to buy. Therefore it makes good sense to put as much on the page as you can.

Then why are there margins?

Because people read books. And people are inefficient. They are not machines. Margins in books provide a couple of key features:

1: Provide room for the reader to hold the book comfortably.
2: Show the entire type block easily without words disappearing into the gutter (the binding side of the page).
3: Give a feeling of openness, making the book inviting to read.
4: Provide space for headers (like titles) and footers (like author credits and page numbers).

This is why I asked you to imagine your favorite book with no margins. Would it be more inviting to read without margins? If it's a more efficient use of paper, then sure you would enjoy reading it even more right? Probably not. What about your life?

Should there be margins in your life?

'Margin' by Richard Swenson poses the question: "Is more better?"

It's no secret America's rabid consumerism has taught most of us that more is always better. Why eat just a burger when you can eat a Big Mac? Why get a pop when you can Supersize it? Why buy 12 rolls of toilet paper when you can buy 24? Bigger is better right? Always.

Is bigger always better? Is it really?

Anyone who has ever worked for a small company and then gone on to work for a big company knows that while you might gain some advantages working for a big company like higher paychecks, better retirement, better healthcare, there are some disadvantages that come along as well. Most large companies are terribly run, and suffer from incredible inefficiencies which increase costs, downtime, time to market, etc.

And yet companies continue to grow and expand. They rarely apply themselves to getting better at what they do, but rather push themselves to just do more of it, or buy a competitor, because getting bigger is always the goal. After all, bigger is always better, right?

But is it? 

Two years after I was married my wife and I found out we would be having our first daughter, and with her not working, we were going to be short money. As a result for a period of time, I worked a second job to pay off some debt and get us ready for our new arrival. I worked with a guy who told me he was working a second job to pay for all of his expensive hobbies. His Harley Davidson Motorcycle, his big new house, his boat, his hunting gear all came with high price tags. I remember him looking across the aisle from me one day while we were stocking shelves and him saying: "He who dies with the most stuff wins."

Even then I thought it was odd. I liked him, he was a good guy, fun to work with. But it seemed weird to me to be working a second job to pay for things you couldn't afford, and couldn't enjoy because you were working a second job. To most of us this seems logical, even if we fail to put the principle into action in our lives. We understand that working two jobs for the rest of our lives to pay for things like that, makes little sense. But do we really live by those philosophies.

Margin, takes this principle, and applies it to different areas of our lives. Swenson is a doctor and watched as people in his practice suffered for years striving for more, only to end up jaded, exhausted and unhappy, usually with severe medical conditions. He argues that the American dream, is just that, a dream. The reality of which is not nearly as pleasant as all the advertisers would have us believe.

But he takes a principled approach to this book. A principle is something that is applicable in any situation, any circumstance. Like lying is bad. That's a principle. Even if you lie for good reasons, we all know it's still bad. Well everyone except media personalities and politicians anyway.

In terms of possessions he argues that possessions bring about an increase in responsibilities, expense etc. If you desire that new boat, and you go out and buy it (usually on credit) you now have to pay for it, so your budget is taxed. You have to take care of it, there are maintenance expenses, licensing fees. You need a trailer, someplace to store it in the winter, the list goes on and on. That bigger house is no different, higher taxes, higher utilities, more to clean, more stress. And all of this stems from American culture's desire to constantly have more and more. But when is enough enough?

He argues that if more is not necessarily good when it comes to possessions, is it true for other areas of our lives as well? What about that job promotion to management? The one that will come with that big paycheck. After all with a bigger paycheck you can buy more and more, and beat your neighbors in the race of accumulation.

And yet with that bigger paycheck comes higher demands, more hours, more stress. Now you're working more, sleeping less, you're more irritable. So to compensate you drink more coffee, your diet suffers. Eventually you visit the doctor for anti depressants.

But aren't you living the American dream? Why are you depressed if you're doing what you're supposed to?

Could it be that the American dream is not all it's cracked up to be?

What about 'good causes'. Now here is where the controversy really bubbles over. What you're involved in your church, or a charitable organization? What if you give more and more to your church, or charitable organization, isn't that good? What if you give so much in your attempts to do good in the world around you that you fill up your time and take all the margin from the pages of your life? Isn't that good? After all, it's for a good cause right?

In his book "The 7 habits of highly effective people" Stephen Covey argues that a person cannot make up for a deficiency in one area of his/her life by pointing out the good he has done in another. Can the CEO who built a major corporation look to his wife and children who now despise him and say they should still love him because of all he's done for the job? What about all those people who have jobs because of the sacrifices he's made?

What about the Pastor, whose children despise church and or God because their father was always there for church, but never there for them? Can he fix that at the eleventh hour?

Can the rich man or woman tell his/her children that they have a great inheritance to look forward to and that should somehow make up for the poor relationship they have?

The simple answer is no.

And yet, we are told in our culture today that our lives should be marginless. Though a page of words without margin would be considered madness, it is the proper destiny of all Americans who love liberty, and freedom and debt, to live our lives filled to the brim, right to the edge of breaking. This philosophy no longer pervades the business world alone, but has crept into Churches, and Charitable Organizations, Sports teams, youth activities, jobs, retailers etc. It's all about more and more and more. If you can fit in more, you should fit in more.

Swenson shows statistics proving that the mother who is facing separation and divorce from her husband, usually fights to keep the house, even though she will struggle to afford it on one income. He argues that the mother and children are better off selling the house and moving to an apartment, in order to maintain the margin in their lives, rather than getting a second job to make ends meet. He argues that the children are better off with a mother who is rested and refreshed and active in their lives, than a big house that is empty of a mother's love.

This is contradictory to the philosophies preached and taught in organizations in America today. We are told to fill up our lives to the breaking point, fill up our garages to bursting, fill up our schedules. If we could only fit in more. And now it seems many in our culture today ridicule those who are breaking the trend. Swenson himself limited his own medical practice to ensure some margin in his own life, rather than following his collegeagues in the vain pursuit of money at the expense of all else. My character has been called into question because of my desire to establish boundaries in the different areas of my life. I'm told if I would just try harder to be happy with more in my life, I would be so much better.

But I am always left wondering, is more really better?

Alas, I no longer believe it is.

If you're living your life under the burden of more, I highly encourage you to check out Swenson's book 'Margin'. Let it challenge your thinking about possessions, ambition, drive, and accumulation.

JSS

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