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.