Unseemly though it may be to accuse New York City's former commissioner of Consumer Affairs of misleading labeling, "The Complete Consumer Book" is not the definitive guide to the intelligent purchasing of products and services which the ambitious-sounding title leads one to expect.
You will not find, for example, information on how to select a nursing home, vocational training school, cemetery plot or pet kennel. You will learn how to get help in extricating yourself from a serious credit debt situation, but you'll need to look elsewhere to learn about your rights in obtaining credit. Bess Myerson discusses what you can claim when baggage is delayed by the airlines, but not how to cope with the more serious and potentially costly problem of permanently lost luggage. Carpet purchase tips are included, but the sometimes thornier problem of custom-made draperies and fabric accessories is ignored.
If you love the outdoors, you'll have use for the 1 1/2 pages devoted to camping. But indoor types are out of luck: There is no advice on how to patronize hotels, motels and restaurants intelligently. Do overseas airline rates confound you? Myerson will wipe your brow and soothe your anxieties for six pages. But don't expect guidance in tackling the more widely experienced challenge of domestic fares, with their array of super-saver, excursion and night-coach classifications which confound even the airline personnel.
Faced with such an apparently random selection of topics, one eventually begins to suspect that Myerson simply has strung a lot of her old nationally syndicated newspaper columns together for an instant book. But notwithstanding the temptation to carp endlessly about what's not here (it could, as they say, fill a book), most of the material she has chosen to include is really rather good. Under the major chapter headings home, car, health, finances and travel, Myerson presents practical information on consumer rights and how to exercise them; She moves each chapter along with letters from her own correspondence file. As a result, the book is readable and well organized, permitting you to refer to it when you're about to make a major expenditure;
In addition, she is quick to refer her readers to related publications and services, usually complete with addresses and costs.It would have been even more helpful, though, to list these resources at the end of each chapter, rather than burying them in the text.
Myerson occasionally strays from her proposed topic. In pages that should be tightly packed with how-to techniques for responsible buying in a multitude of circumstances, she inexplicable wastes valuable space touching on subjects like spot removal and other pointers better covered by cookbooks and household-hint collection.
However, particularly good sections of the book include step-by-step instructions for choosing a used car, a rundown on swimming-pool swindles and instructions on how to buy and finance a home. On other subjects, the advice seems incomplete (what's a guide to moving if it doesn't tell you how to handle the final bill that's way over estimate?) or unrealistic (try keeping a store's carpet sample to compare quality when your wall-to-wall is installed; most insist that you return their samples within 24 to 48 hours).
Myerson does come across as well-intentioned and sincere and it's easy to believe that she really does care whether you and I get our money's worth. Her concern is expressed in exhortations to the American consumer to shed what she believes is a sheeplike attitude. For too long, says Bess Myerson, we have persisted in believing that one raised voice goes unheard. And that, she adds, is primarily how we got where we are today, all too often faced with shoddy merchandise, outrageously priced and marketed in an arrogant, slovenly manner.
Myerson's claim that this guide throws the book at the perpetrators of consumer rip-offs is somewhat strong. Actually, she rarely names names. It's true that she takes on the federal government's General Services Administration, but that agency's not very popular with a lot of people at the moment. In too many instances, the reader looking for straight talk gets words that sound uncomfortably similar to federal government and giant corporation bureaucratese.
Admittedly, a title like "The Complete Consumer Book" is difficult to live up to. But a reader needn't nitpick to know that many topics of major economic importance to consumers are just not here. Myerson's responsibility to deliver what is promised on the cover isn't absolved by her statement on the final page that attempting a comprehensive handbook is futile. Indeed, that disclaimer has the unfortunate ring of the fine print that consumer advocates like herself are always urging us to read before we buy.