Monday, August 06, 2007

Life of buy

On Shopping, by India Knight

(Part of my mission to read more books by female authors.)

In many ways, On Shopping is a magnificent synthesis of content, form and function. It's part of the Pocket Penguin series, published in 2005 as part of the 70th anniversary of Allen Lane's groundbreaking contribution to retail culture. You can even buy all 70 books in the series, in a natty longbox, essentially paying 100 quid to allow Penguin to market their back catalogue at you. Moreover, as the name of the series suggests, the book's quite dinky, so could easily fit in a Mulberry handbag, a bit like a copy of Glamour magazine.

Oooh, hang on, have I just expressed an inadvertently gendered stereotype about shopping? Not to worry, since India Knight does the same thing on the first page, characterising men as "grumpy and monosyllabic when lured down the high street, wishing they were at home browsing the web for gadgets instead". According to the blurb, her purpose here is to spread the message that "if you don't enjoy shopping, you're simply not doing it properly".

In the event, she doesn't really fulfill that promise. On Shopping is a mesclun of chicklit, lifestyle, autobiography and self-help, peppered with a few URLs of varying usefulness. (To give you a flavour, try this: "If you have a house rabbit and want to buy it some presents, go to www.bunnybites.com. It will thank you." Er, yes.) Knight explains how to deal with stroppy shop assistants (comment on their excessive facial hair, apparently) but what's lacking is any kind of explanation of the charms of shopping that might win over us committed retailphobes. She's preaching to the choir.

A quick time out to declare my interests here. I shop, of course. The alternative is foraging or hunting, and I'd probably be even worse at that. Moreover, I depend for part of my income on retail: people buy my books, and although shopping in Waterstone's is less reprehensible to the puritan spirit than shopping in Hennes, it's the same thing really, isn't it? I'm uncomfortable with the environmental and social impact of excessive consumption, but I profit from it. It's a fair cop, guv, in used notes in a brown envelope. On the other hand, I've long been a devotee of the Japanese art of tachiyomi (corrected: thanks, Jun), spending hours browsing in bookshops with little or no intention of buying anything. Although I do feel bad if I leave a small, independent bookshop, or a second-hand establishment, without buying something. And I also believe it's morally wrong to walk out of a big chain bookshop having only made non-book (cards, mags, bookmarks, coffee, etc) purchases. Oy, the guilt. In my case, the concept of retail therapy has completely different connotations...

But at least I think about it. By contrast, On Shopping isn't really about the shopping process: it's about the stuff you buy. In her eagerness to please ("a voice as fresh as a skinny latte" it says on the back cover, which has to be the lamest simile I've read this year) Knight refuses to engage with this dark side of the high street. There's nothing about consumer debt, nothing about peer pressure, nothing about why an affluent society fills its spiritual, moral or intellectual void with a dead-eyed frenzy of chipping and pinning.

Knight does address the fact that consumer magazines operate under an unspoken agreement to talk up the products of their most lucrative advertisers, but not the extent to which this might affect our buying patterns. She recommends regular culls of kids' toys and the contents of adults' wardrobes, acknowledging that "It's one thing to be acquisitive and another to just sit there like a pig wallowing in excess mud." But she never asks why she felt the need to acquire the bloody things in the first place.

15 comments:

Murph said...

Round here the ancient Japanese art of "Kamra-gotcha" is used for people who leave bookshops with no intention of paying.

To assuage your guilt bookshop leaving quilt, why not make a point of always buying a certain Radiohead best seller thereby killing two birds with one stone?

Murph said...

Sorry about the quilt. I've got soft furnishings on the brain.

Billy said...

Gadgets confuse me. But I'm not surprised men are supposed to hate shopping given the crap that we're supposed to be buying.

Annie said...

I also believe it's morally wrong to walk out of a big chain bookshop having only made non-book (cards, mags, bookmarks, coffee, etc) purchases.

The evil American corporate chain I used to work for are trying to alleviate your guilt Tim - apparently in their Brighton branch they are going to phase out everything except CDs/DVDs, the cafe and the stationery. Yep, that's right, a bookshop without books. It's the only logical conclusion really...

(It's all the fault of Amazon and Tesco, they complain: they can't compete with their monster discounts. Ha! Well who started all that off in the first place, pray tell?)

Tim Footman said...

No worries, Murph. As Derek Jameson used to say, "Duvet mean us?"

Yes, they rather befuddle me as well, Billy. When a man talks about his "new toy" I do wonder whether he's being ironically self-deprecating, or just has a mental age of six.

A bookshop without books, Annie. That's very Zen. Very Brighton.

Robert Swipe said...

"..wishing they were at home browsing the web for gadgets instead".

Well, yes, I suppose so. When we're not wishing we were at home browsing the web for porn...

I have a Man at British Heart Fund debit card myself. I can't get enough of reeking like the dead.

L.U.V. on ya,

Bob

Jun Okumura said...

Tim:

Let me know if On Shopping has anything on enrofloxacin-free Chinese eel.

******

It's tachiyomi, not yomitachi. Though Yomitachi would be a fine name for an RPG item. Sword of the World of the Dead, or somethng like that.

Tim Footman said...

I like the idea of the BHF card, Bob. When you spend over a certain amount, do you get a free transplant?

And apologies for the goof, Jun. Must extend my Japanese vocab beyond the sushi menu.

bye bye bellulah said...

There's a fin de siecle breeze blowing down the High Street just now. I'd say hurrah but if we don't buy (or fight) what happens to our rather comfortable and louche lifestyles.

I take stuff too seriously...
A man walks into a bar and says "ouch". Um. It was an iron bar.

Annie Rhiannon said...

A dyslexic man walked into a bra. No, hang on, I've got a better one... Did you hear about the dyslexic pimp? He bought a warehouse.

That books sounds crap. Read "Before You Sleep" by Linn Ullman. She's a Norwegian journo, the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, and she writes brilliant novels.

bye bye bellulah said...

http://www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=515237&agid=21

Not Buying It: a Year of not Spending by Judith Levine.

What do you call a reindeer with no legs, no willy and no eyes?

Tim Footman said...

Of course, bellulah, we're all implicated in it. What I find worrying is the amount of stuff that people buy that they don't want, that never gets used. It's as if the transaction, the act of buying itself, is the thrill, rather than the object.

And then there's the dyslexic insomniac agnostic, Annie, who lies awake wondering if there's a dog. Will add Ms Ullman to the list, in honour of her old man if nothing else.

Tim Footman said...

And that one as well, BBB. Erm... no rudenessing idea?

Spinsterella said...

Dear Sweet God.

She's done quite well out of having a dead friend hasn't she, our India?

Shopping makes me shudder. Spending money on things that aren't absolutely necessary makes me gag just thinking about it.

She's just been added to the I Don't Even Kind Of Feel Sorry For You Cos You're A Bit Fat, I REALLY Hate You list.

llewtrah said...

Aagh not India bloody Knight. India "self-indulgent whiny-whiny I'm so hard done by I'll cheer myself up by getting something in Monsoon" Knight? That woman needs a prod up the backside with a sharp stick.