Young blacks would stop [Bloom] in the street to ask about his suit or his topcoat, his fedora. They were familiar with high fashion. They talked to him about Ferré, Lanvin, about his Jermyn Street shirtmaker . . . His heart warmed toward such connoisseurs — lovers of elegance.
I suspect Brooks’ heart warms to it, too, because he certainly enjoys poking fun at Bobo pieties. Not too much fun, you understand, as that might actually upset someone. Working both sides of the fence is a Bobo specialty, and Brooks proves adept at it. This is a book both liberals and conservatives can love, and no doubt it was designed that way. In his chapter “Intellectual Life,” Brooks criticizes the pomposity and inbreeding of 1950s New York intellectuals and the Partisan Review crowd, and suggests that today’s brand of camera-friendly egghead has a more realistic view of life. But the picture Brooks paints of contemporary intellectual life is so deeply cynical that, when he tells us things were even worse in the ’50s, you can’t help feeling insulted on behalf of Lionel Trilling and company.
There are some good things in this book, but it’s so smug in places you want to kick it down the street until some bozo — pardon me, Bobo — comes along in a Range Rover and grinds it into the asphalt. “Bobo businesspeople have created a corporate style attuned to the information age, with its emphasis on creativity, flat hierarchies, flexibility and open expression,” Brooks chirps robotically in the final chapter. “It’s simply impossible to argue with the unparalleled success of America’s information age industries over the past decade.”
It’s impossible, you see. So don’t even try. A good book, when you close it, opens something inside you. When you close Bobos in Paradise, all doors slam shut. David Brooks is a clever journalist, but his book is an unpleasant combination of cynicism and flattery.
“What, after all, would a world without consumerism be like?” asks Daniel Harris, author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, in the afterword to his new work, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic.
Surely not one that I myself would choose to live in. There would be no cities because cities are dependent on trade, nor money because there would be nothing to buy . . . To imagine a world without consumerism is to erase oneself, to devolve through eons of human progress back to an era in which all of our time would have been devoted to scrabbling for roots and berries, with not a second to spare for making art or reading literature, let alone for writing ungrateful diatribes attacking the very society that has made my life and its manifold comforts possible.
This is both graceful and charming, as is much of Harris’ book, which consists of 10 minutely observed essays on the ways in which consumer culture promotes and describes itself (“Cuteness,” “Deliciousness,” “the Natural,” “Coolness,” etc.). Nonetheless, his afterword gives one pause. Surely human history doesn’t divide quite so neatly into consumerism on the one hand, and scrabbling for nuts and berries on the other? To say that imagining a world without consumerism is to “erase oneself,” or revert to caveman status, only makes sense if you define any society in which money is traded for goods as a “consumer society.” It seems, to put it mildly, a rather myopic view. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “He who spends too much time gazing into the abyss becomes the abyss,” and it’s possible that Harris, in researching his book, has been reading too much ad copy for his own good. Still, by describing in such maniacal and witty detail the true nature of the junk that surrounds us — just as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine — Harris has performed a real service. His book is best sipped slowly, one essay at a time. Read straight through, the sheer accumulation of detail is apt to become cloying, as is Harris’ rather meek scholarly persona. His is a good, honest, well-written book. But you can’t help wishing that, at least once, Harris would stamp his foot and yell about something.
BOBOS IN PARADISE: The New Upper Class and How They Got There | By DAVID BROOKS | Simon & Schuster | 284 pages | $25 hardcover CUTE, QUAINT, HUNGRY AND ROMANTIC: The Aesthetics of Consumerism | By DANIEL HARRIS | Basic Books | 270 pages | $24 hardcover