LIVING IT UP
Our Love Affair With Luxury
By James B. Twitchell
Columbia University -- 309pp -- $27.95
Here's a book for those who like their airline tickets first-class and their champagne vintage. Go ahead, says James B. Twitchell, author of Living it Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury, there's no harm in indulging yourself. It might even be good for society.
The idea that the craving for luxury has civic merit will not sit well with thosse who think Americans should spend more on education, the arts, and charities. But Twitchell makes a persuasive argument that the desire for status goods provides a cohesive bond. In a diverse nation, he observes, this desire crosses all ethnic and economic groups. If Americans can't share God, then why not Gucci? Of course, not just any products will do, and the author, whose wry writing style is occasionally marred by repetition, traces why some things are held in higher esteem than others. Advertising seems to be the main arbiter, with help from the media.
Consumers buy certain items to attain status among their peers and acceptance by those higher up the social ladder, notes Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida. No news here--sociologist Thorstein Veblen noted this back in 1899. But Twitchell goes further, arguing that this kind of social ranking based on what he calls "opuluxe spending" is "far more equitable...than the capriciousness of ancestry."
To study luxury, Twitchell did what all Prada-pining Americans do: He went shopping. He haunted designer stores from Rodeo Drive to Midtown Manhattan to share in the experience of buying a $520 Hermès umbrella or $18,200 Louis Vuitton wardrobe case. Some of his discoveries seemed counterintuitive. For example, he found that less costly items favored by the lower-income aspirants of the good life tend to be emblazoned with logos, while the wealthy pay more for objects where the labels are discreet. Twitchell doesn't think the difference is a problem as long as the lower-end customer happily feels he is sharing a small part of upper-crust life.
The layouts of these stores remind the author of the Renaissance cathedrals. As he points out, the Vatican learned early on that "things that shine gather a crowd." So churches were built with tiled domes and filled with mosaics, murals, and frescoes. People came to gawk but stayed for redemption.
Where else could one find a similar excess of architecture and ornamentation in today's world? Las Vegas, of course. So Twitchell made a pilgrimage to the Vatican of Gambling, where he finds luxury spending in the form of "fantasy travel." If you can't afford to fly to Venice, then park yourself in a faux gondola at the Venetian.
Twitchell acknowledges that traditional spiritual values resonate more deeply than materialism. Unfortunately today's news is populated with stories of religion used to justify bombings and ethnicity to rationalize mass murder. If people can begin to find common ground by appreciating the finer things in life, that may not be such a bad idea.
By Kathleen Madigan