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We Are What We Buy

Much was familiar to me in Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine -- and I wasn't always comfortable with that.

Levine begins the book by telling us about a mid-December day in 2003 when she found herself jammed into a subway car, fighting to protect her shopping bags from other people's muddy boots. Her joy was depleting as rapidly as her bank account.

"I have maxed out the Visa, moved on to the Citibank debit card, and am tapping the ATM like an Iraqi guerrilla pulling crude from the pipeline," she wrote. That was when the idea occurred to her: Why don't we just stop buying? And thus was born the premise for this engaging and thought-provoking chronicle of 2004, the year that Levine and her domestic partner, Paul, simply said no to buying.

They did, of course, purchase what they considered necessities -- basic foodstuffs, household items like toilet paper, and medicine for themselves and their cat. But they shunned all processed foods (extras like cookies and crackers), clothes, books (other than those required for work -- the rest came from the library), CDs, and -- to the horror of their friends -- even movies.

The motive was not financial. It was more about discomfort with patterns of overconsumption and curiosity about what would it would be like to survive daily life as a nonconsumer. "Is it even possible to withdraw from the marketplace?" Levine wondered.

It certainly wasn't easy. If I approached this book with a hint of dread (and I must confess that I did) it was because I imagined it might be the smug celebration of a woman who'd torn up all her credit cards and felt way superior to the rest of us who haven't. Instead, smug celebration finds little place in Levine's account. Living without buying is hard, she confesses again and again, and not because she finds herself hungry, cold, or lacking any true essential.

Rather, it's hard, she comes to realize because -- like it or not -- what we buy defines us. It gives us status, it creates a space for us, and it allows us to commune with others. To stop buying, Levine discovered, leaves one in a sometimes shadowy -- and occasionally even boring -- netherworld.

There was the time Levine's niece graduated and she and Paul had to come up with a gift for her. (The origami animals they tried to fold were just too pathetic.) Then there was day Levine had to ask for wax from a fellow skier (she had forgotten hers) and realized how uncomfortable she felt as a supplicant.

There were the many times, both Levine and Paul discovered, when others wanted to meet them for dinner, movies, or coffee and saying "no" seemed to put a crimp in both friendships and professional relationships. (Here I thought Levine was pretty brave. I'm not sure I'd be ready to test my personal appeal by limiting time spent with others to talks and walks.)

And even Levine, who describes herself as a "desultory and uncommitted consumer at best," cheated twice and bought new clothes. (Levine is also a sharp and witty writer. After describing the salesperson watching her, smiling, like a cat eyeing an easy piece of prey, she writes, "I take out my credit card. Reader, I am fallen.")

Of course, there were also many positives and victories throughout the experiment. For one thing, Levine paid off a $7,956.21 credit-card debt. For another -- in a rather touching aside -- Paul tells her that he thinks 2004 was the best of their 13 years together, because not spending threw them back on their own resources and brought them closer -- and more pleasurably -- together.

Levine decides that in 2004 they became a bit like Denmark. "Neither of us earned a lot but we both feel prosperous."

My one complaint about "Not Buying It" would be that -- in a true spirit of minimalism -- it could have been shorter. And although Levine argues that "politics is a form of consumption" the section about the 2004 election seemed to me a bit like padding, as if Levine were worried that, alone, the account of her experiment might not be interesting enough. (It is.)

But otherwise, this honest and humorous tale of a nonspending year is well worth putting aside a few hours to read. (Perhaps instead of a movie or two.) By thinking harder about how it would feel to consume less we might just make ourselves -- and our planet -- a lot better.

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