Off the Market

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, March 21, 2006


My Year Without Shopping

By Judith Levine

Free Press. 274 pp. $25

Within 24 hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had this advice for his fellow New Yorkers: "Show you're not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping." As to how people elsewhere could help? "Come here and spend money."

However bizarre this response to terrorism may have been, Giuliani was scarcely alone. The Bush administration came out in force to urge that Americans continue what Vice President Cheney called "their normal level of economic activity" -- i.e., make tracks for Wal-Mart or, if you were a New Yorker, for Bloomie's. As Judith Levine accurately if acerbically puts it in "Not Buying It": "It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicitly tied to our fate as a nation. . . . Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and a pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won."

Shades of Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam: guns and butter. It was an illusion (or a delusion) then, and it is the same now. We're living on the home front as if we weren't engaged in perilous and costly foreign adventures, and the same thing has been happening these past several years that happened as Johnson and then Richard M. Nixon drew the nation ever deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam: The budget deficit is steadily rising to alarming levels (thanks as well to the present administration's irresponsible tax cuts), and public confidence in U.S. foreign policy is wavering, yet we keep on living in a bubble, maxing out our credit cards and taking personal indebtedness to extremes that mirror Washington's irresponsibility.

Levine, a freelance journalist previously best known for "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex" (2002), which took controversial positions on children and sexuality, decided that she would take a pass on the shopping spree. Along with her companion, Paul Cillo, she took a one-year vow of abstinence: "Starting January 1, 2004, Paul and I will purchase only necessities for sustenance, health, and business. . . . I won't preach the gospel of the Simple Life or dispense advice on how to live it. I have no illusion that forgoing this CD or that skirt is going to bring down consumer culture."

From the outset, Levine acknowledged that this was an inherently meaningless experiment and/or protest -- "Big problems need big, collective policy solutions," not individual acts -- but she thought it would be interesting and, though she doesn't say so, it provided something for her to write a book about. This does leave one to wonder which really was most important, what she did or what she wrote about it, but "Not Buying It" is scarcely the first book to raise that question. The writer's creed, after all, is that it's all grist for the mill, so we do best to shrug off Levine's motives (whatever they were) and attend to the book.

Levine and Cillo are a long way from wealthy. She earns about $45,000 a year and maintains a "perennially unpaid credit card balance" of about $7,000; she doesn't specify Cillo's income, but it can't be huge, since he does consulting for organizations that don't have much money. They have an apartment in Brooklyn (hers) and a house in Vermont (his). Their personal and business expenses are minimal, though over many years together they have managed to accumulate more stuff than they really know what to do with.

So their sacrifices during this year of abstinence weren't all that great. To be sure, they stopped going to movies, having been "thrust back to the nineteenth century, when amusements were non-mechanized, non-electronic, and non-mass"; they went to a lot of free concerts and other performances, ate at home or as guests of friends, borrowed books from libraries. As she wrote in her diary in August 2004:

"Not Buying is becoming a habit. When I'm picking up groceries at the co-op I don't even think about grabbing an egg roll from the cooler; when I'm driving, I have no impulse to stop for coffee. I don't read magazine ads, even for movies, and I peruse the mail-order catalogues casually, like a woman declining the advances of a lover who no longer thrills her. For their parts, J. Crew, J. Jill, L.L. Bean and my other suitors seem to have sensed my cooling affections and are responding with heightening ardor -- more catalogues, more e-mail announcements of special sales, more missives asking where I have been."

It's not as though they went cold turkey. Several months before the year of abstinence began, they undertook renovation and expansion of the house in Vermont. Though not expensive by Washington standards -- the total ran to a shade over $30,000 -- this construction did commit them to continuing expenditures in 2004. As late as September 2004, Cillo returned from Home Depot with $500 in "coated particle board closet drawers, shelves, dividers and poles." This was "a permissible purchase, since it's part of the new construction," Levine writes, but it does give one pause: Was the decision to renovate made before the vow of abstinence, or was it squeezed in after the vow but before January 2004 in order to make future purchases "permissible"?

Similarly, in December 2004, Levine and Cillo held their "Fourth Annual Chanukah Latke Bash" at the Brooklyn apartment. They served beer that Cillo had brewed, and "because we're not buying it, we've asked friends to bring wine." Levine rationalizes this as appropriate to the occasion, but it looks for all the world like an end run around the vow: Let someone else buy, but buy all the same.

Then, of course, Levine had a lapse. At a store in Vermont called Common Threads, she purchased, on sale at "only $138 minus 30 percent," a pair of pants, "a greenish jacquard silk-polyester blend." Cillo, who had been going through the year with "effortless purity," expressed mild irritation, and the reader is likely to be less mild about it. What's the point of a vow of abstinence if you don't honor it?

Oh, well, one lapse is perhaps allowable. Overall, the year produced for Levine (she doesn't say what it did for Cillo) reduced expenditures of about $8,000 and permitted her to pay off her credit card balance. Both learned a few lessons about what purchases matter and what do not, what's necessary and what isn't, and they developed a "heightened consciousness" of the importance of "personal responsibility" for the country's social and economic shortcomings. On the whole, Levine manages to hold the self-righteousness to a tolerable level, but since she is, by her own description, a "selectively fashionable, rurally urban, wholesomely hip, ironically butchy heterosexual outdoorsy brainiac" who hangs out in Brooklyn and Vermont, be warned that "Not Buying It" isn't going to let you off scot-free.

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