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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
There is in a clue in the subtitle “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.
The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.
Let’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.
Pygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.
I could link to another work about transformation, Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life. I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.
So let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’. Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.
I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….
Consequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has two captivating characters in the form of Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.
The family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.
And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.
My performance with challenges has proved less than stellar over the years but I’m doing much better with the TBR Triple Dog Dare sponsored by James at James Reads Books. The Dare asks participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. With only a couple of more weeks to go I’m feeling rather elated about how well I stuck to this plan. The magic key to why this one works and all other TBR challenges I’ve tried have not, is that I can still buy as many books as I want. I just can’t read them yet.
Of the 12 books I’ve read so far this year only two were not already on my TBR. That isn’t bad going for one who usually has the staying power of a mayfly. And there were good reasons for both misdemeanours.
The first slip from the straight and narrow path came in the form of A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was the book club read at the start of the year. I wish I could say that my stray from the path was worth it but this was a lacklustre read. You can see why in my review.
Happily my most recent lapse was all in a good cause. I requested My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout from the library last year. Finally it came through last week and I’m the first borrower. Ideally I would have liked to hold onto it until the end of the dare on March 31 but there are now so many people waiting for it that the library service is blocking any renewal options. So I had to read it. But it was absolutely no hardship. The book is a joy to read and of you havent got to it yet, dont hang around too long.
But it’s read and returned and I am back on track with the dare, reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin as part of Reading Ireland Month. Another beautifully constructed novel which, after a similarly rewarding experience with Nora Webster, is making me want to read more of Toibin’s work. Anyone care to make a recommendation on which of his books to read next?
Emboldened by my success to date I might stretch it for another month.