- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Thomas Hine
HarperCollins, $24.95, 222 pages, illus.

"I Want That!" the title of a new book by Thomas Hine, echoes the little voice inside all of us this season, one that grows louder as we walk through shopping malls looking for presents for friends and family, fantasizing how we might look in trendy fashions at holiday celebrations. The subtitle : "How We All Became Shoppers" mercifully moves us from the guilty state of perpetual greed to the socially redeeming value of understanding that we're merely doing what comes naturally. This book could have been called, "Born To Buy."
Thomas Hine is reporter, anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist and capitalist in this cultural tour of the phenomenon we all know as shopping. "I Want That!" is the logical extension of the author's earlier book called "Populuxe" in which he explored, literally, the shape of things in design in the '50s and '60s, from tailfins to TV dinners.
In "Populuxe" the author showed how populism when combined with luxury goods created a social optimism that defied the fears of the Cold War, juxtaposing the infinite possibilities of the Jet Age in the air with the high tech styling of the sporty car on the ground. Push-button power referred to whirring gadgets in the home as well as mutual deterrence.
"I Want That!" is more extensive, finding ancestral roots for shopping in the Garden of Eden, when Eve, seduced by the snake, suddenly recognizes her need to cover herself. In fashionable terms, this book runs from fig leaf to Versace, from the exile of Adam and Eve to postmodernist self creation.
It forges links with Jason's pursuit of the Golden Fleece, the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, J.R.R. Tolkien's hunt for the ring and on-line bargain hunters on eBay.
Chapters take us through ever-expanding markets that challenge power and status from the Far East to the West Coast, from tribal women in the Kalahari wilderness to shoppers in Filene's Basement.
Perspective is in the eye of the practitioner. A personal purchase can be an emotional commitment, a political statement, an assertion of identity. Collectively, shopping has the potential to benefit society or hurt it, depending on who controls money and taste.
It can be a source of inspiration or a means of control. But at its best shopping offers independence and freedom of choice. "… Even if Wal-Mart is not the noblest expression of personal liberty or the highest achievement of democracy," writes Mr. Hine, "we should consider that it does provide a setting for exercising a kind of freedom that has threatened tyrants and autocrats for thousands of years."
Shopping in this analysis provides a constant quest to balance needs and desires, as in food for survival, food to enjoy, food to be snobbish about and food to carryout from pizza pie to pecan pie. We wear clothes to decorate our bodies and keep us warm. We choose costumes to cover and expose, reveal and invite, test and tease. Shopping runs the gamut of emotions, including anxiety and succor, depression and exhilaration, selfishness and generosity, demeaning failure and great expectation.
Each of the book's nine chapters takes as its theme a passion, an emotional force that drives us to shop, playing to our best and worst selves in the flux of life. The multiple perspectives and conditions for shopping stretch and overlap one another like layers of cloth in a textile shop. The information is not always organized well, but that doesn't seem to matter. Reading each chapter is rather like running your hands over bolts of silk, muslin and velvet, enjoying the feel without having any idea how to shape the material into a thing of beauty. The fun is in the abundance of satisfying information, a mall for the mind.
Vignettes leap from the page to illuminate and invigorate the analysis. The chapter on power, for example, begins with a snapshot of a woman in a parking lot at Wal-Mart leaning on her walker, oblivious to honking horns as she slows down all the drivers eager to find parking spaces. When she arrives at the entrance, she finds a shopping cart, puts her walker in it and then increases her pace, propelling herself through the busy corridors with the help of the rolling wheels.
Much later at the check-out counter she has a number of small objects in her cart, some trinkets for her grandchildren, bathroom accessories, nothing absolutely necessary, and only as much as she could carry home on the bus. Although the author tells us how the whole trip made her feel self-reliant, generous and thrifty, the little lady says it better: "I just like to get out of the house and do a little shopping."
In another scene we follow Mr. Hine through a torrential rainstorm on his way to a museum sale of Wedgwood china. Although Wedgwood had never interested him before and he didn't need any new dishes, he joined "similarly greedy people" to have a chance to buy items on sale. The chapter on Wedgwood becomes a fascinating riff on the marketing and manufacturing of a commodity, as seminal to the subject at hand as learning about whale oil in "Moby Dick."
An array of facts entertain and inform. Men walk faster on treadmills, women walk faster in malls. The most fashion conscious people in the mall are females between the ages of 12 and 14. One-third of all retail sales in America take place in this holiday season.
So why do we shop? The author concludes that by shopping we revel in our competence, express our love, seek out surprises, disguises, and best of all, bargains. "We hunt. We gather. We rummage. We haggle. We splurge." So let's go at it. I want that!

Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, is nationally syndicated.

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