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Six Degrees: From How to Do Nothing to Americanah

This month’s Six Degrees begins with a book whose title suggests it falls into the self-help category. Since I’m invariably disappointed by the superficiality of most of those books I haven’t given much thought to How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.

But reading the descriptions have got me far more interested. Odell is an artist is a writer and a Stanford professor who has become increasingly disturbed about the effects of our “always on” world. She argues that reacting instantly to every ping of a new text message, constantly checking Twitter feeds and Instagram stories is possibly torching our ability to live meaningful lives, and preventing us from noticing what matters.

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A similar concern formed the basis of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you’ve not read it, this is a thought-provoking, and disturbing account of research that shows how the Internet is re-wiring our brains so they become more accustomed to only superficial understanding. We don’t read what’s on our screens, we simply scan with a profound consequence for how we retain and recall information and learn.

Carr’s book was based on the distraction problem caused by content stuffed with hyperlinks, every one of which was calling for your attention. If he was writing it now, he’d be commenting on the added distraction caused by all the marketing messages that bombard us every time we fire up a website or a social media platform. They’re there for one reason, and one reason only: to persuade us to buy.

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The same year I read The Shallows I read The Undercover Economist in which Tim Harford delved into the world of coffee shop marketing. He explains in non-technical terms how Starbucks and other coffee chains price their coffee and drinks to try and get us to trade up.

The economic principles are quite straightforward. Your entry level Americano doesn’t offer much of a profit margin. But add in frothy milk, and call it a latte or a cappuccino and the profit looks more healthy. The ingredient costs don’t go up that significantly but your customers think they’re buying into a life style so they’re willing to pay higher prices. Persuade those same customers they really need (deserve?) a flavoured syrup, a squirt of cream or a sprinkle of marshmallows ( heaven help us, some people want all three) and those profit margins rocket.

I guarantee, when you’ve read Harford’s chapters on Who Pays For Your Coffee and What Supermarkets Don’t Want You To Know, you will never look at a coffee menu in the same way.

Marketing is much older than maybe some of us realise. Émile Zola had his finger on the button in 1883 when he set one of his Rougon-Macquet novels in a Parisienne shop.

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In The Ladies’ Paradise the store owner Octave Mouret has grand ambitions to become more than just a modest size operation. He sets about creating a huge department store, killing off his competitors with his big advertising spend, ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery and seasonal sales. Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire, enticing women to lose their heads and buy far more than they need or can afford.

Into this den of consumerism steps Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who takes a job in the store because she has to provide for her two younger brothers. She’s taught to smile and agree with customers even when they’re being completely disagreeable, arrogant and rude.

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There are similar scenes in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin which transplants the young Eilis Lacey from her small village life in Ireland, to the bustle of Brooklyn. Ellis, accustomed to the sales technique of the harridan who ran the village shop (customers who want cleaning products on the Sabbath re given short shrift), is nervous as hell when she begins her job in an American department store. Here she’s told, the customer is always right and its Ellis’ job to serve their every need.

Brooklyn is a love story but also a story about the experience of people who leave their homes in search of what they believe will be a better life.

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up this theme through the story of Darling, a young teenager who manages to escape the poverty, hunger and despair of Zimbabwe to live with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan).

At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices. She adopts the new lifestyle, the clothes and habits of her new friends. But then she begins to feel alienated from her motherland and her new life; missing all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America. 

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It’s a book that reminded me strongly of sections in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which a brilliant exploration of modern attitudes to race and identity, loss and loneliness.

Her female protagonist Ifemulu, having achieved her dream of a place at an American university struggles to find her identity. Ultimately this girl triumphs when she decides not to conform to expectations about her ethnic origins and colour. The moment she stops hiding her Nigerian accent beneath an American one and refuses to straighten her hair she feels truly free and true to her roots.

And with that we reach the end of this month’s Six Degrees chain. We’ve travelled from France, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to the USA, pausing to pick up a coffee and get our hair done. I hope you’ve enjoyed my meanderings.

If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best

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