Book Review: Not Buying it: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine

I initially expected a true year without spending a dime, given the title. Judith gently let me down in the introduction: “Starting January 1, 2004, Paul and I will purchase only necessities for sustenance, health, and business – groceries, insulin for our diabetic cat, toilet paper, Internet access.” Her experiement is a an attempt at a year of anti-consumerism, a sort of Adbusters Buy Nothing Day stretched out over a whole year. Shopping can be a lot like eating – they both are methods of consuming – and in both ways one can binge, particularly when driven by emotion. But it took me a few chapters to warm to the idea that rather than fast, Judith and Paul have chosen to selectively abstain from certain “meals”. They created a set of rules, like Kosher or Halal, and are trying to keep to them for a year. (Let me just say that Paul, by virtue of being a straight male, and with the boost of having been raised in the country, comes out by far the winner in this tale. Since he never binged in the first place, he doesn’t have any trouble not bingeing.)

The idea was good, and it was what drew me to the book, but I left unsatisfied. I really didn’t feel like Judith had learned anything she hadn’t already reasoned out in her introduction, so neither did I. It doesn’t help that I suffer from classism, and Judith and Paul split their time between two homes – one a brownstone in Brooklyn, the other five acres and a cabin in Vermont . . . on which they are undertaking a significant addition. When I splurge it is usually a $5.00 issue of Cottage Living or Organic Gardening magazine that sings the siren song. When Judith splurges, it is on a $138 pair of jacquard silk-polyester pants.

Starting in September, the book’s emphasis abruptly shifts to the election, and rarely wavers until Election Day. Little discussion of the experiment is done except the occasional rationalization of a campaign contribution. Honestly, I did little more than skim this section, and ended up missing most of the holiday season coverage as a result of my dissatisfaction.

The book was not a complete wash, though. I enjoyed Judith’s comparison of her affair with SmartWool socks with the zoning hearings for a cell tower in Hardwick, Vermont. Judith had always worn her old, ugly purple polyester socks when skiing – that is, until an excellent salesman convinced her (as much with scornful grimaces at the sight of her old socks as with his praise of the SmartWoolTM) that her old socks were vastly inferior and that SmartWoolTM was not a luxury but a necessity. The zoning board of Hardwick, the small town in which Paul’s cabin is located, is considering the building of a 180-foot cell tower. Hardwick has never before had cell service and, what’s more, the builder of the proposed tower does not have a contract with any cellular service provider. Over the course of several zoning board meetings, the populace of Hardwick convince themselves that a cell tower is not a luxury but a necessity – in fact, a matter of life and death. (The police chief writes to the local paper that the cell tower would greatly assist in communication during 911 calls – though what he doesn’t mention is that there has never been an issue with communication during 911 calls.) Two things that were previously unknown, transubstantiated into the status of wants, and then into the status of needs.

— Amanda

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