14 December 2007

Consumer Week: Reader, I Didn't Buy It

Since Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT is written in diary form, here's my favorite diary entry of hers. It's short, but it speaks volumes:
September 21
I clean out the third and last jar of hoisin sauce. If we had a bigger refrigerator we could have stocked up and made it through the year.
Here's a luxury according to the rules in Levine's game, but one she finds so crucial to her happiness that she had previously stocked up on enough jars to last 9 months. And what does she think when she finishes the jar? Not "How delicious!" but "I need a bigger fridge." I'm sure Levine sees the irony of her situation, but the entry epitomizes our attitudes of shopping, from my fellow city dwellers pining after suburban Costcos to the desire to pick up just a little extra of what you need. (My own family is certainly not immune to this; if you opened our freezer -- yes, we have a stand-alone freezer in addition to the fridge -- you would probably find a huge cache of last year's Girl Scout cookies, waiting to be eaten. Are Thin Mints a necessity?)

It also epitomizes both what frustrated me and what I liked about the book. Of course, giving up buying everything is an extreme experiment, something that the best of us may aspire to but realistically could not (or would not) be able to carry out. At the same time, Levine presents not only herself as a fallible consumer, but even ropes good ol' Thoreau in with her. (Apparently, Thoreau's WALDEN proclamations were backed up by a potentially irritating habit for visiting others' houses around dinner time. I'm sure were he alive, he would be happy to leave a comment defending this habit.)

Levine says at the end of the book that she plans to be more mindful in how she buys since completing the experiment, and it would be interesting to find out if she actually does that. It definitely made me want to try harder, if not to stop buying everything, to make the purchases I do make more meaningful. Since as I mentioned in the first part the book was written in an election year, Levine struggles with the idea of political participant as consumer (as she donates to political nonprofits ahead of the 2004 election). But she also regrets that her friend's store, which sells objets purchased directly from African craftsmen, would suffer in the absence of her buying power. She gives in and buys a new outfit on vacation, but she also visits several stores to find the V-neck shirts she wants to pack for her dad as he heads to a nursing home. The act of buying doesn't have to be an empty gesture, as long as we recognize that it's a gesture. And I recommend this book even if you recognize that already.

Check back this weekend for my review of AFFLUENZA, the third and final book in my consumer series.

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