Dispatches | November 25, 2010

Today is Thanksgiving (Happy Thanksgiving!), and while I hope you’re occupied with eating stuffing and giving thanks for such things as stuffing, if you’re like me you’re already wondering what the population will be tomorrow of the nearest shopping mall, at the same time that you know it will be very high, and have said to at least three people in playfully exasperated tones that you would not be caught dead there, even though you suspect you will be caught alive there for one reason or another.

Shopping promises to be on our minds for weeks to come, and so I have turned my attention, in a lazy Thanksgiving fashion, to the literature of shopping – or, literary depictions of and commentary on the activity of shopping.  I don’t doubt that countless books are devoted to the subject, or include it in their portrayals of modern life and those who live it, but the book is rare that can portray it in a way that sticks to one’s brain and cannot be extracted.

I can’t think about the literature of shopping without thinking of White Noise, with the attention it lavishes on the supermarket.  I suspect I am not alone in this.  But it has been too long since I read it to say anything greater than that I can’t help thinking of it, so if you have any insights, please add them below.

Much more present in my mind is “Books as Furniture,” an essay by Nicholson Baker that appears in his collection The Size of Thoughts, which I don’t have in front of me because I have traveled this week and my books are at home on their shelves.  I vividly recall, however, that Baker is attentive to the literature one finds in catalogs – not the copy written to accompany photographs of cabinets and bookshelves, but rather the books that are photographed as accessories to furniture.  Anyone who knows this essay knows what Baker accomplishes in it:  his effusive attention to oft-overlooked minutiae (the province of a familiar essayist, and Baker in particular) leads him to a memorably biting – and yet altogether congenial – cultural criticism, as he points out that despite the proliferation of books on shelves in catalogs, this portrayal hardly reflects the dearth of books on the shelves of the average reader of those same catalogs.  It’s one minor part of the essay, if I remember it right, but it constitutes one of the great achievements of shopping literature, as I have decided to call it this Thanksgiving morning.

I asked my wife for more examples of shopping literature.  She said, “Edith Wharton,” but was unwilling to elaborate.

Do you have a favorite depiction of shopping in literature?  Is there an author who portrays shopping in an especially remarkable fashion?  What can one accomplish by writing about shopping?  How has the portrayal of shopping changed in the last century – or the last millennium?  How many open-ended questions should I ask before the post ends?  Please offer up your thoughts.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

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