the guardian Fri 22 June 2012
Consumption and its Consequences by Daniel Miller (Polity, £15.99)
Ours is an age of bovine consumption, driven by advertising, which is destroying the planet. Or so runs one popular zeitkritik, which the anthropologist author complicates with examples from his own fieldwork, observing the culture of car upholstery in Trinidad or everyday shopping in London. (Consumption is always creative, he insists.) The text is bookended by imaginary arguments between three academics, who heap praise on Guardian writers (Jonathan Freedland, George Monbiot and Hadley Freeman), and, in a proud pomo twist, have very nice things to say about Daniel Miller's own new book, as they sketch out a strategy to combat global warming.
Charitably granting the author's healthy self-regard, a reader might still object that his analogies between shopping and sacrifice, or between very different cultures, can seem strained. Miller also offers an argument about denim jeans that, while acknowledging designer jean brands, claims that there exists a large genre of "mainstream everyday jeans" which signify nothing but ordinariness. I suspect there might be a a wide semiotic variety in signalling between "everyday" brands such as Levi's, Lee, Wrangler, George by Asda and so on, but I'm no expert. Where's Hadley Freeman when you need her?
How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (Macmillan, £7.99)
In Trinidad, Miller tells us, to ask someone you've just met "So, what do you do?" is a social faux pas: work is regarded as an ugly necessity, not a source of identity. The present book, on the other hand, promises to help us become skilled in "the art of the career change".
Krznaric is a congenial writer for a "lifestyle thinker", and the interweaving of historical fact, psychology, and interviews is nicely done. (He is particularly interesting on the flaws in corporate "personality tests".) A lot of the interviewees first made a lot of money in a boring job, and then switched heroically to something "creative". The author acknowledges early on that for many people, psychically "fulfilling" work would be a luxury, but claims (citing no evidence) that for the "majority" of westerners this is not the case. Really? Tell it to the Greeks. Meanwhile, I dreamed idly of a utopia of self-employed beekeepers and homeopathic Reiki therapists, trading honey for energy work the livelong day.
The Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge (Oxford, £7.99)
Who the devil is the Devil? He's "a cosmic leader of the opposition", "God's hangman", "a criminal mastermind", and "the father of lies". In this densely researched and drily elegant book, Satan is pursued through Augustine, Marlowe, Milton, Shelley, Blake, Goethe, Ambrose Bierce, Auden, and CS Lewis's Screwtape, tales of self-mortification and witch-hunting, painting and the cinema. (No mention, sadly, of the underrated Keanu Reeves vehicle, Constantine.) In secular imagery, Oldridge points out, the Devil is a jokey hero of rampant consumerism: surely a cutlery company somewhere must use a hungry Satan to advertise its long-handled spoons.
Oldridge insists refreshingly on the "subtlety" of medieval thought about the Devil (not mere "superstition"), as against modern demonology, which he finds lacking in nuance, even as it enjoys a resurgence. The current head of the Catholic church expressed admiration for exorcists shortly after his empopement. Could make for an interesting career change.