Shopping for me, but not for thee: the complications of voluntary simplicity.

Author:Miller, Cheryl
Position:Not Buying It: My Year without Shopping - Book review

As Judith Levine tells it, it was the winter of 2003 when she figured out what Calvin Coolidge knew 80 years earlier: The business of America is business. Levine, author of the controversial Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, was walking home in the snow lugging Christmas gifts when she decided that she had had enough. Looking at her wind-beaten fellow shoppers, she announced, "I'm not buying it." She pledged to give up shopping for one year.

Naturally, no writer could let so interesting a potential experience go unrecorded. So now we have her new book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping (Free Press). Except she doesn't really stop shopping. As her experiment begins, Levine claims that she means to limit herself to the necessities of daily life. One scans through Levine's list of necessities with growing incredulity. High-speed DSL (hey, it's for work!), cable television, the occasional $55 haircut, "organic French roast coffee beans," skiing?!

Levine airily insists that necessities in New York are different from those of a "farmer in Bangladesh." But she seems to forget this relative wealth when she describes the daily life she leads with her partner, Paul. She paints a pitiful picture: This "highly insecure" existence includes two residences (an apartment in Brooklyn and a house in Vermont), flexible work that allows the couple to take off and ski in the afternoon, three cars, a windsurfer, and a healthy diet of such Whole Foods staples as "Thai sweet black rice" and "Mexican huitlacoche fungus."

Moreover, throughout their ostensibly shopping-free year, the couple expands their Vermont home. (Since they agreed to do so before Levine's pledge, they figure spending $30,000 on renovations doesn't count.) Yet Levine assures us that--thanks to "rampaging corporations" and ruthless "GOPpies"--they are on the verge of "starv[ing] and freez[ing]." They Lack such necessities as a microwave, a hedge trimmer, even a cappuccino maker. Bangladeshi farmer, eat your heart out.

So we're only a few pages into the book and Levine's premise is shot. All Not Buying It can offer in the way of authorial suffering is Levine's running out of Q-Tips. Sadly, she can't achieve the "impeccable ear hygiene" to which she's accustomed with mere tissue. Levine goes without seeing Fahrenheit 9/11, which for a self-described "rurally urban, wholesomely hip, ironically butchy" New Yorker must truly have been torture. And of course, she "cheats" (she...

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