The Power of the Consumer

Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury by James TwitchellI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tax rebate President Bush just signed into law. As a single taxpaying citizen I’m entitled to receive up to $600 for my rebate check. The rebates are intended to stimulate the U.S. economy through consumer spending in an effort to counteract the growing evidence of a recession. My first instinct is to figure out where I’m going to spend my money, but on deeper thought, why do I have to spend that money on consumer goods such as clothes, appliances, or even books? What cultural imperative drives me to spend my money on such items? So, in honor of my indecision on how to use my rebate check, I present three fascinating studies of consumerism.

We start with An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross. This illuminating work is a rich history of how market goods came to dominate American life over the last hundred years and why for the first time in history there are no practical limits to consumerism. In the New Republic, Alan Wolfe writes, “It takes a historian to provide an appreciation of how far Americans have wandered from the days when consumerism was slightly suspect, and Gary Cross is superbly up to the task.”

James Twitchell, professor of English at the University of Florida, has written a number of books on advertising, consumer psychology, and marketing. Among his works most applicable to today’s discussion are Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury and Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism.

Economic downturns and terrorist attacks notwithstanding, America’s love affair with luxury continues unabated according to Living It Up. Over the last several years, luxury spending in the United States has been growing four times faster than overall spending. It has been characterized by political leaders as vital to the health of the American economy as a whole, even as an act of patriotism. Janet Maslin in the New York Times Book Review said of Living It Up, “The author is savvy enough to conduct most of his research in the real world. This is the rare book project that forces the writer to shop on Rodeo Drive, leaf through Vanity Fair . . . and visit the most extravagant spots in Las Vegas. . . . [An] engaging addition to the growing field of Luxe Lit.”

Lead Us Into Temptation explores the consumption of goods, which Twitchell argues provide us with tangible everyday comforts and with crucial inner security in a seemingly faithless age. That we may find our sense of self through buying material objects is among the chief indictments of contemporary culture. The Financial Times called this book, “[A] gripping and illuminating account of the culture of consumerism and everything it involves: marketing, brand names, fashion, shopping, packaging, garbage, and above all the nature and meaning of consumerism itself.”

For another historical perspective you can turn to Rachel Bowlby’s Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. In the book, Bowlby blends history, literary analysis, and cultural criticism to explore the rise of department stores and supermarkets of the United States, France, and Great Britain. The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Carried Away is in some ways a rare opportunity to go on an intellectual shopping spree, a guided tour of consumerism with a premier cultural critic.”

For my money, I think books are the way to go—are you shocked by my choice? So, you’ll find me in the aisle of a local independent bookseller such as Book Culture, happily perusing away.

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