Shopping for Me, But Not for Thee

The complications of voluntary simplicity


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 "GOP pies"—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 must concoct some drama, after all, and giving up Q-Tips wasn't cutting it), breaking her no-shopping pledge for the most unromantic item imaginable. She buys a pair of roomy, greenish polyester pants. For $138. It's like cheating on your husband with the pimply IT guy and paying for the hotel room.

With the "not buying it" premise fizzling out, the book devolves into a paint-by-numbers screed on the evils of capitalism: It's destroying democracy, paving over the rainforest, polluting the air, fraying the social fabric, etc. There's not a thought here that couldn't fit on a bumper sticker. In one tell-tale example, Levine rhapsodizes that the giant ads in Times Square should be replaced with "children's art, artists' videos, recipes, and safe-sex comics."

But most galling is the sense of entitlement Levine evinces on every page. She fumes against Ronald Reagan for actually collecting on the National Defense Student Loan she never expected to pay back. She rails against consumerism but is appalled when one of her fellow Voluntary Simplicity groupies announces she is only buying used books. This affront "hits me directly in the royalty statement," she whines.

Like so many anti-consumerist proselytizers—from the suburban-sprawl activists to the McDonald's haters—what Levine is really talking about is taste. Isn't it dreadfully vulgar, she grumbles, how Americans spend their money? The movies they watch, the houses they buy, the politicians they elect? Why don't they spend their money on the stuff Levine prefers?

Levine claims that shopping became a less important part of her life during her experiment. Not so. For Levine, even the smallest purchase became a way of signaling who you are: You're investing not in a pair of shoes but in an idea of yourself. Whether she's buying organic veggies from the local co-op or her beloved SmartWool socks, Levine is constantly searching for affirmation of what a caring, enlightened person she is.

Levine's no-shopping pledge has all the anti-capitalist bona fides of Adbusters' "non-brand" brand, Blackspot, or, better yet, one of Citibank's "Live Richly" ads. Spiky haircut? $55. Organic coffee beans? $7 a pound. Excoriating everyone else for overconsumption? Priceless.