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Book: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping

February 6, 2009
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Speaking of not buying it, I’m awfully glad I didn’t buy this book.

First, can we just discuss this cover? This could be the ugliest book cover I’ve ever had my house. It offended my delicate book-cover sensibilities. I was a little shocked when I picked it up at the library. Maybe the publisher was making a statement about consumption (we’ll even overlook incredible ugliness in our hunger for consumption?) but I don’t care — U.G.L.Y. It looks like a mistake.

So, you probably know the story. One holiday season, Judith Levine realizes that all the spending and consumption around her is really yucky, and she decides to spend a year “doing without”. Not buying it. By this, I guess she means not spending money on anything unnecessary. I found some major holes in her ‘rules’ but more on that later.

The book is loosely structured as a diary-type narrative: “August 1st: saw some cute pants. Didn’t buy them. Didn’t even feel tempted. However, was tempted by new bag.” Etc. Interspersed, like an unwelcome hole in your brand-new jeans, were long diatribes about: the Iraq war, then-President Bush, free speech, Voluntary Simplicity, a cell phone tower in Vermont, overseas labor costs, greedy marketers, and her own smuggy feelings about not spending and already living somewhat conservatively (that was my interpretation, anyway). This was the bulk of the book. I skimmed the majority of these parts because they were soooooo long and boring and I Am A New York Liberal Who Is Outraged.

The book was relatively light on: what it’s like to not spend money on ‘unnecessaries’ — what wears out more quickly than she expected, what things she was surprised she missed the most, how she deals with ‘deprivation.’ Well, she did go into how much she missed movies. A lot. Like, a LOT a lot. Like, at least once every 10 pages. Movies do not even enter into my calculations about what I spend money on, so I found this somewhat interesting. But mostly, really boring. She doesn’t really go into what movies represent to her (escape, information, entertainment, community, etc.). She just talks about the fact that she was horrified that she had to miss Fahrenheit 9-11. Puh-leeze. You didn’t miss it. Just watch it on video next year when your experiment is over.

She says at one point that they run out of Q-Tips. Q-Tips are deemed unnecessary, so they do without. But what is that LIKE? We get no answer. We also get no answer what it is like to switch from fancy soap to Ivory, or what it’s like to watch your grocery budget tightly. Oh wait, she doesn’t have to do that. Why? Because groceries are deemed necessary (of course). But apparently, as long as it’s not overly-processed, anything goes. Falafel mix is overly processed (apparently). However, sour cream is not. Fancy olives and lox are necessary, but wine is not (unless you make it yourself, which her partner eventually does). Does she make her own bread? No. But how is falafel mix different, then? Why is bread from the deli necessary, but falafel mix, which you have to mix up yourself, is not? I don’t get it. I would have written a lot more about what she does in the absence of going out to dinner, how her cooking habits changed, etc. The question of what exactly they are trying to learn/prove/do kept bubbling to the surface. Isn’t consuming fancy groceries the same as ‘consuming’ a pretty bag? Isn’t sour cream processed, as Ivory soap is processed, as falafel mix is processed? Where’s the line? They have no clear line, and that was distracting.

Because, as she often reiterates, this is not about saving money (although that naturally does happen). It’s about not consuming. Or something. Because while this is happening, she and her partner still have three cars, an apartment in Brooklyn, a 40-acre property and small house in Vermont which they are renovating. They are still consuming food. They are still consuming public services. They’re still accepting gifts (albeit guiltily). They still have cable TV. The ‘rules’ are never very clearly laid out, and clearly they have some difficulty navigating what they’re trying to do as well. They can buy materials and paint and bathtubs for the renovation, but not Q-Tips? I don’t really get it.

What I found MOST irritating was that at the end of the book, there was no Grand Summary of what she learned, what they’ll continue to do without, what she’s looking forward to buying, how her habits have changed, etc. She just sort of touches lightly on these things, but never really gets into it. I guess I kept wishing this were an entirely different sort of book. It was more a political commentary than a experiential accounting. I wanted the latter. I don’t have much interest in the former.

Also under Most Irritating is the fact that clearly she intended to write a book about this all along. A book that people would… buy. WTF? So backwards. She says at one point that she resolves not to title the book, “Don’t Buy This Book,” because we’ve all got to do our part in keeping the book industry going (which I agree with, mostly). But still. Irritating.

So, I didn’t really like this. I read (skimmed) to the end because I wanted the Grand Summary, and was disappointed. So I’m Not Buying It, Judith. Sorry.

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