When asked in the 1920s why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory notoriously quipped: ‘Because it’s there.’ It was a flippant remark, of course, but also an instance of what Friedrich Nietzsche had called ‘superficiality out of profundity’. For Mallory’s retort conveyed the deep human impulse to attempt challenging, dangerous and potentially even deadly endeavours, for no better reason than that one might succeed. Getting to the top of Everest – which has now claimed around 280 lives – is not something that mountaineers do for the fame, fortune or bragging rights. They do it because inside of them there is an impulse that demands that they try. If your response to the idea of standing on the highest point on earth is: ‘Yeah, that would be pretty cool,’ then you have something of that impulse too.
Both “Less is more” and “More is more” are the catchphrases of a consumer society faced with unimagined plenty. Following World War II, “Less is more” suggested unease with mass abundance: restraint became an emblem of refinement. Two decades of uninterrupted prosperity later, “More is more” poked fun at its abstemious parent. It is also a fitting description of the way we live now. Even if you think yourself a reluctant shopper, consider all of the resources used to create our material world: the steel to build our homes (especially the Miesian ones), the natural gas to fire our furnaces, the aluminum in our smartphones and tablets. In the world’s richest countries, consumption has ballooned by over a third in the past few decades to the point that in 2010, each person in the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.
How did we come to be such voracious, irrepressible consumers? And how has all of this consuming changed the world? Those are the questions at the heart of Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things, a more-is-more sort of book, each of its nearly seven hundred pages of text jam-packed with telling facts and counterintuitive provocations. Trentmann deals with five hundred–plus years of history, from the Renaissance city-states, with their tastes for gilded goblets and Oriental silks, to present-day China, where state capitalism has proven that liberalism is no requirement for booming consumerism. It’s a book about material objects (such as a department store window featuring a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral composed entirely of hankies), but even more, about all of the consumption that cannot be so readily seen—unspectacular, everyday acts such as changing your underpants daily (only 5 percent of German men did so in 1966).
“Never embark on an orange.” The words of a Victorian etiquette manual communicated the infinite variety of embarrassments risked by the eater who tackled the fruit at table. Tough to handle with a knife and fork, difficult to deal with daintily by hand, liable to stain the fingers and the tablecloth or spray an innocent bystander with juice – and then there were the pips!
This terror of the dining table faux pas pops up throughout human history, from the ribald humour of Petronius’s ancient Roman Satyricon, to the 20th-century US sitcoms that played incessantly with the scenario of the boss coming to dine at an employee’s house. Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner – now reissued – shows how the often unwritten rules of communal dining offer surprising insights into how we relate to our food, and to each other.
Two things, first: One, Delphine de Vigan's Based on a True Story is a powerful novel of suspense. Two, Based on a True Story may or may not be based on truth.
For many, a book club is an oasis in an otherwise hectic life. Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of HarperCollins, has been in a children’s literature book club for the better part of a decade. For him, he said, “the club is enormously calming when you’re in the realm of change and unreliability. People may be going through marital or work difficulties, but in book club there is no need to divulge what is happening in your personal life.”
But … that is one group. Book clubs can also be the epicenter of fierce friendships and enmity; a breeding ground for resentments large and small. They can be as fraught with drama as any romance, because for many they are a romance. A romance that comes with snacks.