I want it all

Another one I stumbled upon while browsing through Bill Bryson’s fabulous book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America:

In the evening I sat in Hal and Lucia’s house, eating their food, drinking their wine, admiring their children and their house and furniture and possessions, their easy wealth and comfort, and felt a sap for ever having left America.  Life was so abundant here, so easy, so convenient.  Suddenly I wanted a refrigerator that made its own ice-cubes and a waterproof radio for the shower.  I wanted an electric orange juicer and a room ionizer and a wristwatch that would keep me in touch with my biorhythms.  I wanted it all.  Once in the evening I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and walked past one of the children’s bedrooms.  The door was open and a bedside light was on.  There were toys everywhere — on the floor, on shelves, tumbling out of a wooden trunk.  It looked like Santa’s workshop.  But there was nothing extraordinary about this; it was just a typical middle-class American bedroom.

And you should see American closets.  They are always full of yesterday’s enthusiasms: golf-clubs, scuba diving equipment, tennis-rackets, exercise machines, tape recorders, darkroom equipment, objects that once excited their owner and then were replaced by other objects even more shiny and exciting.  That is the great, seductive thing about America — the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not.  There is something deeply worrying and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification, this constant appeal to the baser instincts.

Do you want zillions off your state taxes even at the risk of crippling education?

‘Oh, yes!’ the people cry.

Do you want TV that would make an imbecile weep?

‘Yes, please!’

Shall we indulge ourselves with the greatest orgy of consumer spending that the world has ever known?

‘Sounds neat! Let’s go for it!’

The whole of the global economy is based on supplying the cravings of two per cent of the world’s population.  If Americans suddenly stopped indulging themselves, or ran out of closet space, the world would fall apart.  If you ask me, that’s crazy. (pp. 158-9)

The book is 20 years old, so it may sound a bit dated, but his perspective (he is an American ex-pat in the UK)  is one many of us now share (even if we fall within that category of the middle-class and don’t know what to do about).

4 thoughts on “I want it all

  1. Toni

    Isn’t Bill Bryson in danger of lynching for his socialist un-American attitudes?

    If you’ve not read it yet, can I encourage you to read ‘The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid’ – he sums up progress really effectively, as well as giving some great snapshots into life.

    One issue I’ve noticed is that this kind of thing is infectious, and I’ve certainly caught the disease a bit. I’ve been asking why I have a bunch of Amps and a lot of Nice guitars I don’t use much (it’s hardly fair to call it a passing whim or fad though) . I’ve also wondered what to do about the darkroom gear (nearly became a professional photographer) and the model aeroplanes (that was just a hobby). The bikes are logical – they’re transport, and I have only bought a relatively small number over the years.

    Easy to justify, isn’t it?

    And our son presently owns 3 cars. :-/

  2. Marc Post author

    You’d think he’d be in trouble, wouldn’t you? 🙂 But he can be excused, I suppose, because the book is 20 years old. And anyway he safely resides on your side of the pond.

    I have read Thunderbolt Kid (I tend to snap up anything he publishes), though I don’t remember much about it (in fact, in my memory I may be confusing it with Stephen King’s “On Writing”).

    I, too, relate to that whole gratification thing. Oddly enough these days it’s Bibles, as odd as it sounds. I keep telling myself, “Why don’t you just read the Bible, any Bible, rather than worrying about all the translations and nice leather/reference/study/etc. editions?” 🙂

    Last night I was thinking that all sin is in some sense based on desire much as consumerism is about breeding desire. Many sins fall under the umbrella of “lust” (desire gone bad, I suppose). I remember reading somewhere (Luther, perhaps?) that when one ‘deals’ with one type of lust (e.g. sexual), it is likely that another sort of lust will take its place (e.g. greed — lust for money).

  3. Toni

    I remember you mentioning it now, I think. It was really insightful about the way America (and therefore eventually the rest of the western world, though for different reasons) moved from being grateful for prosperity to being greedy and consumerist. A funny book with many good observations and points.

  4. Phil L

    It’s interesting that frugality was formerly a hallmark of conservatives (conservatives conserved and liberals were profligate), and now for many the word conservative seems to be synonymous with over-consumption.

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