Sunday, 7 June 2009

Bye-Bye, Buy-Buy

not buying it In Norfolk at half term, I picked up Judith Levine's book "Not Buying It" for only 50p in a secondhand bookshop.

Liz and Sera both said they would be interested in my thoughts, so here they are...


In mid December 2003, JL had an Epiphany [look, she's an atheist Jew and her partner is a lapsed Catholic, so we have to forgive her if her liturgical calendar is a bit out, OK?!] Struggling home on the subway to Brooklyn, with carriers full of gifts and 'stuff' that is apparently 'essential' for Christmas, tripping over other peoples' bags, she thinks "WHY? Do I NEED all this?"

She goes home and persuades partner Paul that they should undertake a year of non-consumption and withdraw from the Consumer Society. Bless him, the guy agrees to go along with this crazy scheme for the whole of 2004. JL keeps a diary of her year's experiences and the conclusions she has drawn from them.

Some explanations are necessary;

They are allowed to purchase necessities [defined as sustenance, health, business, groceries, and medication for their diabetic cat]

Because they each had a home when they met, and like skiing in Vermont [his place] but do business in New York [hers] they will continue to maintain both properties - living in each place half the year and whilst renting out the other property.

They start the game in a very affluent position - both writers, they work from home, and have accumulated much 'stuff' already. In January she does a Pantry Audit - and finds she already has in stock eight different types of rice, six sorts of flour, and nine different vinegars - and lots of other ingredients. So even buying just 'basic' vegetables, she has the possibilities of making interesting dressings and sauces etc.

What I found really good about the book was her honesty in admitting she had, prior to this year, totally bought in to the American Consumer lifestyle, and if she saw it and wanted it, she purchased it.

judith levine JL finds the whole thing a real challenge, and her struggles to decide what groceries and other items are 'essential' and which are 'luxury goods' is interesting, amusing, and sometimes just a little irritating.

She meets up with a number of other people seeking a similar lifestyle change, and joins a 'Voluntary Simplicity' Group. She learns about carbon footprints, and thinks hard about giving and receiving.

Towards the end of the year, she describes slipping into a Brooklyn chapel on Christmas Eve and being inexplicably moved to tears by the Carol Service which is taking place. Her subsequent comments about 'people of faith' are quite revealing. Her conclusions at the end reflect the fact that she recognises that they have something she wants. I am not sure she and I would agree on what that is though!

From my perspective, I suppose I began being annoyed with her for her profligacy and apparent selfishness [the whole 'I'm Worth It' L'Oreal lifestyle] which she had been pursuing to that point. Bob said  one evening "You just LOVE books you can rant at!" and I guess he is right. But the further I got into it, the more I felt I understood where she was coming from. My whole upbringing has been so very different. I was taught that all we have is a gift from God, and we should be good stewards, so almost every  purchase is carefully questioned [ad nauseum, the girls would tell me] Can I justify buying this? Should I buy a cheaper model? or is that false economy? Is this just for my personal pleasure, or can I use it to benefit others? Do I really need this - and should I be giving the money to some better, more worthy cause? Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without...and other mantras handed down through generations of poverty, war-time rationing, prayerful tithing, and careful budgeting.

cupcakes I don't want to sound all sanctimonious and holy about this, because I know where my spending weaknesses are. And I recognise that "God gives us richly all things to enjoy" - so an occasional iced bun with my cup of tea at the School Fete is not sinful! Yes, there were lots of things in her daily life in Brooklyn/Vermont which were way outside my experience. And I am cynical enough to think that she saw the 'book opportunity' before she began the exercise.[Hey, that's why I got my copy in 2009 secondhand for 50p rather than for £7.99 when it first came out!] And who am I to cast stones, when I live in one house and have just purchased another one? [oh dear, mixed metaphors here - I was actually thinking about 'he that is without sin first casting a stone' not 'people living in glass houses'...]

But despite myself and my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book because it made me think and re-evaluate some issues I may have been taking for granted. It helped me to figure out why other friends do have different spending patterns and question my own inconsistencies.

The other thing I decided at the end of it - I may have disagreed with her, at times, and ranted a bit - but at least I felt I had engaged in some intelligent thought about the whole Consumer Society thing. A lot of the 'Christian' stuff I have been reading lately has not been anywhere near as stimulating. It has all been ho-hum, bland, yes-that's-sound-and-comforting, warm fuzziness. Which is all well and good - but occasionally, I think it is important to be challenged and made to think about my faith, not just blindly accepting things because it is the easy thing to do. If I haven't thought it through thoroughly myself, how can I give an answer to somebody else? Which is one reason I enjoyed 'The Shack' - even if in many quarters people condemned and criticised the author for his unusual portrayal of The Trinity.

So yes, I would recommend it. Yes you can borrow my copy Liz. Yes Sera, you can borrow it later [you're probably too busy with wedding plans right now!] But above all, the key thing is borrowing  - Not Buying It!!


  1. There was something of that kind in a Tearfund Newsletter a while ago. I do think we have to evaluate what we buy and why. Especially now. I always try to buy fair trade stuff, fair trade being my "thing".

    But if you have 9 kinds of vinegar and, what was it - 8 kinds of rice? you have an unreasonable base to start with. Start with nothing, be on benefits, struggle with feeding a family, and evaluation surely becomes second nature? Or not, as the case may be.

    I was interested in your comment about some of the christian writing being "fuzzy". I find so much of Christian writing could do with a good, hard edit, preferably by a hard-nosed publisher with no Christian leanings! Some magazines, and some writing seems to be published on the assumption that it is written by a good Christian man/woman so it MUST be good. Oh no it isn't!

    (and I speak as a published Christian writer with non-Christian standards!!)

    Will try and follow your link and vote!

  2. You do make me laugh! Can I get in the borrowing queue please? Sounds like the sort of book that is interesting but infuriating too.
    It must be something to do with one's age, dare I say, that makes one unwilling to go into the whole consumerism thing. I find that I always check out bargains, two for one etc, and IF we had such a thing as Charity shops here I would be in them. However, I did get to a Hospice one last week in UK and bought, oh joy, books! six for £3.00!

  3. I am really looking forward to reading this - I find that books like that, whatever the quality and infuriation rating, often inspire me to try harder to simplify.


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