NOT BUYING IT: MY YEARWITHOUT SHOPPINGJudith LevineFree PressHeather HoffmanMirror book criticIn our fast-paced consumer culture, the dividing line between a luxury and a need is not a line in the sand; rather, it is a ripple in a fast-moving stream. Judith Levine, a confessed shopoholic and freelance writer, decided in December 2003 to spend all of 2004 not buying it — specifically not buying luxuries — or, more to the point, a year without recreational shopping. Levine gives up new movies, new clothes, restaurant meals, and store-bought beer and wine. In Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, she chronicles her month-to-month struggle to live in our consumer culture while she does without.Not Buying It is equal parts memoir, political diatribe, and social theory. Levine employs a direct, investigative narrative voice throughout, occasionally pausing for biting humor or eyebrow-raising irony. She kicks off the book with wonderful, highly political observations about rampant consumerism in a post-911 world:“In New York only a day after the towers fell, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani counseled his trembling constituents to ‘show you’re not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping.’ When the world’s people asked how they could help, he responded, ‘Come here and spend money.’”Levine begins her journey already outside of the mainstream. She is a vegetarian East Coast intellectual whose last book, Harmful to Minors, tackled the taboo subject of adolescent and childhood sexuality. To a certain extent, she considers herself immune to the vicious cycle of debt-based shopping where people charge impulse items like cutting-edge electronics and clothing on credit cards, then struggle each month to meet the minimum payments. Thus, Levine is surprised by how much she misses recreational shopping. She writes eloquently about the thrill of the hunt to find a “perfect” item, be it a flattering pair of pants or a rare tablecloth. In shopping, says Levine, the pleasure and value of items increase with “the perseverance invested in their capture.” The arrival of the Internet has greatly amplified this process, allowing consumers to spend limitless hours searching for rare, expensive objects. Of course, credit cards are the de facto tender for Internet purchases.Levine is alternately ashamed and proud of herself. She judges herself guilty of emulation -– the cultural practice of suddenly needing what our friends and neighbors have recently acquired. At the same time, she is proud of her longtime commitments to recycling her trash and repairing, rather than replacing her appliances. Readers will happily identify with her moments of self-doubt and weakness, especially when she falls off the wagon and buys the “perfect” outfit in a thrift shop. She defends her moment of cheating by pointing out that “Proceeds after operating expenses go to a good cause. I’m not consuming new resources. It’s an efficient, rational market exchange and a gift in motion. If I had to lapse, I’ve come to the right place: a truly anti- consumerist consumer opportunity, a place to transgress virtuously.”With such an elaborate defense, Levine begins to craft a buying philosophy she can live with. Her newfound consumer enlightenment, however, borders on preaching, and gets worse as her year without shopping goes along. Left adrift sans her main sources of fantasy, new books and movies, she shops for moral and political influence, donating money to moveon.org and various political candidates.Not Buying It becomes less about the Not Buying and more about the It. Levine explores the social and emotional reasons why people choose to bond with each other over shopping and eating out rather than long walks and picnics in the park. She describes two girls shoe shopping as “the cheap thrill of the ephemeral, the instantly consumed and discarded mini-relationship with person or thing, the ‘quickie’ of urban commerce.” Levine admits she’s bitter and cranky, as she makes what she feels are intelligent buying decisions for herself and the world at large while becoming more and more judgmental of consumers she observes in the midst of shopping orgies.While Levine questions the behavior of both right and left wing shoppers, she never truly questions her own actions. Why did she go into debt buying impulse items in 2003, but spend considerably less on charitable and political donations only a year later? She finds many ways to redefine what is and is not a forbidden luxury so she can continue to shop in an Eco-friendly way, but never attains the level of shopping frenzy she had the year before. Indeed, why isn’t she spending the same percentage of her disposable income on charities as she once did on clothes? Clearly, Levine’s book may be about her year, but such a narrow focus on other people’s perplexing buying choices rather than her own will alienate average readers, and detract from what is otherwise an absorbing and fun read about the intense emotional ties modern consumers retain for the collective experience of supply and demand, give and take.
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