Posted by: Kate | November 27, 2012

Book Review: Not Buying It

When I requested Judith Levine’s book “Not Buying It, My Year Without Shopping” from the library, some of the reviews were quite scathing and judgemental. “She doesn’t really go without,” some said. Others were not impressed that she stocked up on some things before hand. But other reviews were full of praise. Mixed reviews of such opposite nature – that definitely piqued my interest.

What I determined was that Levine’s book was a personal account of one person’s struggle to find a middle ground in the culture of buy buy buy. It was written before the major global crises of the present, but after the terrorist attacks on the United States, at a time when Americans in particular were being told it was patriotic to shop, and shop a lot. Levine, a journalist, questioned that all or nothing attitude. She explains the rationale for the year well, and through-out the year does many small investigations into various aspects of buying, or not, and consumer culture.

I liked the honesty of the book, the small struggles that might seem petty but really, are what many of us would deal with. If not a bottle of wine, for some it might be yarn, or vegetable plants versus seeds, or something else that may seem petty to others. The reality is that if we chose to live within our culture (as oppose to ‘opting out’) then these are the small details that will trip us up.

The book is arranged as chronological entries, some long and some short. It’s not a daily diary, but rather a snapshot of certain moments. I especially enjoyed her writing towards the end of the year, as she gets to the core of consumerism.

“No matter how far off the grid a person wanders, she still resides in culture. Human cultures are held together with speech and touch, ritual, religion, and law. These immaterial relations are made of material things. Thing plus relationship equals exchange….. A committed shopper I may not be, but I am a consumer because I cannot not be one.”

In discovering that the nation’s museums, art galleries, libraries and other public places are in dire straits, Levine comments: “With the public sector in the shop for repairs, anyone seeking pleasure, sustenance, community, and meaning (not to mention health care or education) has nowhere to turn but to private consumption. The public good becomes little more than a dream….”

And on the argument that we are all too busy and need more leisure time: “more leisure is unlikely to turn the happiness tide either…. Teach a man to fish and he will buy a pair of  $400 Simms waders. Then, he’ll have to go back to work and stay overtime to pay for the bill, and he won’t have time to wear them.”

Really the entire December chapter is quote-worthy, and beautifully wraps up Levine’s year. She is a thoughtful, thought-provoking writer.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not a how-to, or an aren’t-I-so-wonderful, it’s an honest attempt at making some reason for oneself in a world of manic consumerism. I found it immensely relatable and readable, and in parts funny and moving as well. And it got me thinking and asking questions, which is really what I love in a good book.


  1. thank you for this kate – it brings up a lot of good points and issues as we are moving into the “buy buy buy” of the holiday season… trying to find that middle ground is the key.
    sometimes it easier than others though : )

  2. This sounds like an interesting book. I gulped when you had yarn in your list. I try very hard not to be a non-thoughtful consumer, but that would be the place I most often fail.

  3. It sounds like a fascinating book. I think it is irrational to think that we can just stop buying…things come up, emergencies happen. But doing something like this makes one consider every single purchase I would think. Which is what we need to do in order to stop accumulating so much ‘stuff’. The line ‘I am a consumer because I cannot not be one’ says a lot in my opinion.

Welcome! I always like to hear what people think of a post, it often leads to a great discussion! I am now responding to comments and questions right in the comments themselves, so other people can follow the conversation.

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