A credit to my parents (among many); they turned everything into a “teachable moment”. A new addition to my vocabulary came with a lesson on the root word, and whether it came from Latin, or French or Greek. A new song came with a quick history of Manchester 80′s New Wave, or Delta blues. My allowance was paid after chores and before a lesson on budgeting. A new car magazine had to be read and not just scanned through for pretty pictures.
And so came one of the lessons that ended up changing how I viewed the world. I was in my early teens, and had just discovered Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, when my father suggested I read Paul Fussell’s Class. “It’s even got some car stuff in there; he talks about how people buy SUVs to look like they’re rich enough to have a country home. Just read it. You’ll like it.”
I devoured Class, as well as Bad, which I considered the advanced, up-to-date version, and never looked at the world in the same way. Not many books have done that. To explain both would take another essay entirely, but both books do a wonderful job of deconstructing consumerism, advertising, marketing and most importantly, how all three prey on people’s insecurities relating to social status. Read them and you will feel both immune to “aspirational brand” marketing and also wondering about the class signals given off by friends, peers, people you interact with – and yourself.
Paul Fussell died today at age 88, and while his body of work is incredibly important in an era where class and money no longer have anything to do with one another, and the push to define ourselves through consuming goods has never been stronger. I leave you with the passage below, from Class, where Fussell ruthlessly dissects the semiotics of the automobile (and also perhaps, shows some indirect Panther love – remember, this book was written in the early/mid-80s)
“If your money and freedom and carelessness of censure allow you to buy any kind of car, you provide yourself with the meanest and most common to indicate that you`re not taking seriously so easily purchasable and thus vulgar a class totem. You have a Chevy, Ford, Plymouth or Dodge, and in the least interesting style and color. It may be clean, although slightly dirty is best.
You may not have a Rolls, Cadillac or a Mercedes. . . . The worst kind of upper-middle-class types own a Mercedes, just as the best own elderly Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Chryslers, and perhaps Jeeps and Land Rovers, the latter conveying the preppy suggestion that one of your residences is in a place so unpublic that the roads to it are not even paved, indeed are hardly passable by your ordinary vulgar automobile.”
And of course, some wisdom from my own mother, upon seeing the first $399/month lease deal for a BMW 320i
“Anyone can have a BMW now…and [redacted, her billionaire godfather] drives an old, beat up Buick.”
Two teachable moments, expressed in slightly different ways, updated for our times. Go out and buy the books. For the cost of a couple spark plugs, your outlook on the world will never be the same.