Monday, March 12, 2012

Running Down a Dream

Shiny Objects by James A. Roberts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Has the American Dream been perverted by the lure of easy money? Have the old-fashioned values of hard work, thrift and moderation given way to sloth and envy and shop-till-you-dropism? Is there any way out of the tar pit of mindless, endless compulsory consumption in which America seems to be trapped?

Yes, yes and yes, says James Roberts in his provocative Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy.

Though Roberts is a professor of marketing, his book is no dry academic treatise. There's not much genuinely new here—the kids-and-marshmallows willpower test, for example, was a newsy meme last year—but Roberts does an admirable job of weaving far-flung statistics, anecdotes, scholarly papers and current events into a coherent and compelling narrative of a way of life thoroughly corrupted by materialism and commercialism. He deftly sketches the outlines of the American Dream, traces its origins and development, and examines its decline over the past century or so as the combined forces of mass production, mass communication and mass marketing converged to overwhelm an increasingly rootless, affluent and leisured populace. Finally, he offers practical advice on how to spot and resist those forces as well as how go about living a simpler, more humane and meaningful life without dropping out of mainstream American society.

Shiny Objects is brisk reading. It is liberally peppered with graphs, USA Today-style box quotes, and self-assessment quizzes covering everything from your "General Happiness Scale" to your susceptibility to product placements in movies and television. I found it insightful and informative overall, but  two things kept me from rating it higher.

First, when it comes to dispensing practical advice in the final third of the book, Roberts turns out to be an enthusiastic disciple of Dave Ramsey. Nothing wrong with that, but if I want Dave Ramsey's advice I'll go straight to the source. Then, too, there's an element of blaming the victim at work when Roberts wags his finger at Americans for not saving enough, not planning for retirement, and not buying homes they might actually be able to afford. Nevermind the paucity of affordable new housing in this country, the decimation of pensions and IRAs in the wake of the stock market collapse, or a federal monetary policy that—intentionally or not—has discouraged personal saving by artificially suppressing interest rates for the past three decades.

Nevertheless, Shiny Objects is a worthwhile read. Any book that gets me to consider picking up a Cecily von Ziegesar novel must have something going for it. Why would any grown man read Ziegesar's Gossip Girl, Zoey Dean's A-List or Lisi Harrison's Clique? Simple: to see if it really is possible to cram an average of one product placement on each and every page of a 200+ page book.

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