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I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers
     

I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers

by Thomas Hine
 

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Shopping has a lot in common with sex.
Just about everybody does it.
Some people brag about how well they do it.
Some keep it a secret.
And both provide ample opportunities
to make foolish choices.

Choosing and using objects is a primal human activity, and I Want That! is nothing less than a portrait of

Overview

Shopping has a lot in common with sex.
Just about everybody does it.
Some people brag about how well they do it.
Some keep it a secret.
And both provide ample opportunities
to make foolish choices.

Choosing and using objects is a primal human activity, and I Want That! is nothing less than a portrait of humanity as the species that shops. It explores the history of acquisition — finding, choosing, spending — from our amber-coveting Neolithic forebears to Renaissance nobles who outfitted themselves for power to twenty-first-century bargain hunters looking for a good buy on eBay. I Want That! explores the minds of shoppers in the quest to nourish and feed fantasies, to define individuality, to provide for family, and to satisfy the needs for celebration, power, and choice — all of which lead us to malls, boutiques, websites, and superstores.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In ancient Rome, artisans sold luxury goods at their clients' homes; during the seventies, Bloomingdale's deliberately confused its customers with disorganized merchandise displays. "For better and worse, it is impossible today to imagine a world without shopping," Thomas Hine argues in I Want That!. Hine coins the term "buyosphere" to describe the spaces in which we acquire, and he traces the history of shopping back to the quest of Jason who, with the help of the Argonauts, was "trying to get his hands on a valuable object" -- the Golden Fleece. "For the hero (as for some shoppers) the struggle of finding is more important than the actual getting," he explains. In these strapped times, every shopper can be a hero. "Indeed," Hine writes, "our economic health depends on shoppers' ceaseless lust for the inessential."

That "ceaseless lust" may explain the success behind John D. Freyer's singular experiment, which he chronicles in the book All My Life For Sale. Freyer, who describes himself as "the type of person who holds on to things," made almost five thousand dollars by selling all the possessions in his Iowa City home on eBay. He began with his toaster (final price: $11.50) and then moved on to an Iowa City phone book, 1999-2000 ($1.25), a copy of the novel "Infinite Jest," one-eighth read ($7.50), a Jesus night-light ($8), and his sideburns ($19.50). Though the book is a catalogue, it is also an autobiography of how objects have defined Freyer's life. He almost took up smoking because a kidney-shaped ashtray ($8) was "so damn cool," and he felt a deep anger when his father returned a handmade book ($22.50) Freyer had constructed out of ads from old Life magazines.

(Marshall Heyman)
Publishers Weekly
From the Mall of America to e-commerce, it seems shopping is more than a casual activity for most Americans. Although some believe that the rise of advertising and strip malls have fostered slavish devotion to shopping where it didn't exist before, Hine posits that the acquisition of objects has a firm place in humanity's history. A columnist for Philadelphia magazine and the cultural critic who coined the term "populuxe," Hine offers fresh insight into why we shop and how we are in some ways born to do so. Throughout recorded time, he states, shopping has allowed people to show their position in society and to gain a sense of personal control over their surroundings. Given shopping's rich and enduring history, it makes sense that people in the developed world now have such a preponderance of products to buy, and that they're marketed to appeal not to our needs but our desire for acceptance, attractiveness and power. Hine is a jaunty writer who breaks down an unwieldy topic into a thoughtful cultural riff. Although he touches on shopping's psychological effects (especially with those who seem addicted to it), Hine mainly refrains from assigning a positive or negative judgment. Instead, he delivers a balanced and entertaining analysis of how we arrived at our shopping-drenched state, and what those ringing cash registers really say about us. Photos. (Dec.) Forecast: This critique of a popular culture phenomenon could have a general readership, thanks to Hine's easy, nonjudgmental approach. Having the pub date coincide with the biggest shopping month of the year is a nice touch. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Philadelphia columnist Hine considers why we buy what we buy. With a six-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Philadelphia magazine columnist Hine (The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, 1999, etc.) presents a witty and informal history of the way people shop. In nine thematic and overlapping chapters, Hine discusses marketplace behavior from ancient Greece to his local Wal-Mart during markdowns. "Power" explains how traveling to a store and purchasing a few gifts demonstrates the ability of an elderly person to feel important to her family: The power to possess luxury items displays the owner’s personal authority and is reminiscent of mythological heroes seizing a sacred object. In "Responsibility," Hine points out that despite demographic changes in the workplace, women are still the primary shoppers, even buying 75 percent of NFL logo-ed gear. Hine quotes an anthropological study showing that a woman’s trip to the market parallels an ancient sacrifice. "Self-Expression" and "Attention" offer a history of markets from the Greek agora through large medieval fairs and on to modern trends, when things like ready-to-wear clothing and fixed prices freed consumers from dealing with annoying salesmen and the anonymity of large stores with appealing arrays of new selections can make shopping an enjoyable activity (online shopping, with the exception of eBay, failed to provide an equivalently stimulating variety of new items). In "Celebration," Hine shows how Christmas has become the huge shopping event that it is: Easter, with the Resurrection, is the chief Christian holiday, while Christmas has become a domestic celebration of joyful birth. The Northern European tradition of tree worship adopted by Queen Victoria spread to America, and Santa Claus has ballooned into a super manufacturer withlow-rent Arctic space and a better overnight service than Fedex. Casual and cheerful, with interesting nuggets scattered about. (20 b&w photos, not seen)
Karim Rashid
“I Want That! raises questions about consumption, material goods, trends, cultural shapers, markets, choice, desire and guilt, and makes one really think about the state of perverse pleasure and desire for reward that Thomas Hine terms the “buyosphere.” Shop till you drop, or consume only till noon? The ultimate rewards of our crazy lives of perpetual work, the evanescent pleasure of consuming, and our over-informative material culture with its excrescence of choice, are all discussed, clearly, concisely, and cogently. I Want This Book!
St. Petersburg Times
“A fun book to read.”
Dallas Morning News
“A choice morsel to consider while foraging on your next hunter-gatherer expedition.”
New York Times
“I Want That!...help[s] us understand an activity that is fraught with cultural implications. ”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060185114
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
11/07/2002
Edition description:
1ST
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Power

Why We Want Objects and How They Change Us

I noticed the old woman as soon as I drove into the Wal-Martparking lot. Actually, I couldn't help it because she was blocking my car. Leaning on her walker, oblivious to the impatient shoppers who were honking to express their displeasure at my refusal to run her over, she made her way, inch by laborious inch, toward the entrance of the sprawling discount store.

She eventually found a shopping cart in the parking lot and, in a quick motion that was almost graceful, picked up her walker and put it into the cart. Then, using the rolling shopping cart for support, she was able to quicken her pace and soon reached the store entrance. And the rest of us were able to park and pursue whatever we were after.

I kept wondering about her as I walked toward the store myself. Why did she feel compelled to go to so much trouble? What did she really need?

Once we were inside the store, our paths kept crossing. Every time I saw her she was at a rack or a bin, closely scrutinizing skirts or shorts or tops. After half an hour or so, she had a variety of small items in her cart, all of them purchases one assumed she could live without, but none of them luxurious or self-indulgent.

When I finally asked her about her trip, she shrugged off the notion that it was an ordeal. She came regularly, by bus, she said. Today she intended to pick up some things she needed around the house and something for her grandchildren, though there wasn't,, anything she absolutely had to have. "I just like to get out of the house," she said, "and do a little shopping."

What was precious toher was not any particular object but rather the ability to go out on her own and make a choice. She told me that she had to be careful not to put more in her cart than she could carry on the bus. And she needed to be careful with her money. But by getting out to the store, she was able to feel selfreliant, generous, and thrifty. The few items in her cart were almost incidental to her desire to prove something to herself and to those around her. As long as she could get to the store, nobody could say that she was incompetent. She was still able to live a normal life. And by bringing gifts to her grandchildren, she was asserting her importance in the lives of her family members.

You might conclude, then, that the act of going shopping was more important than anything in the cart, but that would not be entirely true. Going shopping might be an assertion of her abilities, but the things she carried home are proof of her power.

Using objects to make connections between people and establish one's authority is an ancient and universal form of human behavior. Other species make limited use of tools to establish specific tasks, but only humans -- so far as we can tell -- place objects at the very heart of their societies. For all people, at least since Neolithic times, things have been repositories of power. Those who possessed key objects have been the rulers and wizards of their peoples. A king's crown, a chief's mantle, a shaman's collection of mysterious charms, a rappers jewel-studded teeth have served as sources of authority and magic.

Through most of history, desirable objects have been few and precious. Ambitious people gained dominance by seizing them. Already powerful people maintained their position by bestowing gifts on allies and potential adversaries. Priests and priestesses proclaimed their access to the spiritual world by using ritual objects that invoke supernatural powers. When powerful things fall into the wrong hands, the order of the society is at risk. Throughout history, rulers and religious leaders have worked not merely to amass powerful things for themselves, but to prevent others from doing so. By limiting the dissemination of objects, they sought to keep control.

Contemporary society represents the worst nightmares of such rulers and shamans. Even the poor can afford to live cluttered lives, and amid such abundance it is difficult to establish authority. Possessions no longer affirm the chief's right to rule, but they are essential to the exercise of another sort of power: the consumer's right to choose. My Wal-Mart acquaintance didn't imagine that the items in her cart had anything in common with a monarch's crown, but they were political statements, albeit of another sort. They were declarations of independence.

Even today, shopping is not the only way in which people deal with the power of things. People still steal things, often to seize the power of the things themselves. Young people die because robbers want their cool shoes. And the exchange of gifts is still a very powerful way in which people establish connections and obligations among themselves.

But shopping is our chief exercise of the power of things. It is a ritual so tightly integrated into the fabric of our lives we scarcely realize that it is there. In contemporary society, most people are already learning to shop before they can read a word or utter more than a handful of meaningful sounds. It is, child psychologists have observed, one of the earliest ways in which people begin to understand the world and to develop their personalities.

Three out of four American babies visit a store, usually a supermarket, by the age of six months, though some start virtually at birth. They soon begin to realize that the store is the source of some of the good things that they had previously associated solely with their parents. Some time after that, at around age two on average, they begin pointing at and indicating their desire for things that they see at the store ...

I Want That!. Copyright © by Thomas Hine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Karim Rashid
“I Want That! raises questions about consumption, material goods, trends, cultural shapers, markets, choice, desire and guilt, and makes one really think about the state of perverse pleasure and desire for reward that Thomas Hine terms the “buyosphere.” Shop till you drop, or consume only till noon? The ultimate rewards of our crazy lives of perpetual work, the evanescent pleasure of consuming, and our over-informative material culture with its excrescence of choice, are all discussed, clearly, concisely, and cogently. I Want This Book!

Meet the Author

Thomas Hine, the author of four previous books, including Populuxe and The Total Package, is a writer on culture, history, and design. He is a columnist for Philadelphia Magazine and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, Martha Stewart Living, Architectural Record, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. He Lives in Philadelphia.

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