“Waste not, want not,” is what my grandfather used to say when I tried to leave the table without finishing my cabbage rolls. His words – the words of all grandfathers of a certain age – are reconfigured in the pages of Sarah Lazarovic’s graphic reflection on modern-day consumer culture. Part memoir, part catalogue, and part manifesto, A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy may be light-hearted in tone, but its message is earnestly serious: Stop buying so much stuff.
Lazarovic’s message is largely founded in personal revelation, and like the slow food movement, more remedial than prescriptive. Beginning with an analysis of the shopping habits of her youth, Lazarovic writes “One of the grossest things I’ve ever seen was the garbage room the day I moved out of my freshman dorm. It was a shrine to waste, to hastily bought and easily discarded crap…the detritus of a year of misguided shopping.” The accompanying image features a room overflowing with clothes, furniture, and “too many pairs of slutty underwear.” What follows is an apt description of a girl’s coming-of-age against the backdrop of late-capitalism – a historical moment that shouts, “You are what you buy!”
Growing up in Florida, a stereotypically consumer-driven state, Lazarovic says that as a child she didn’t necessarily want more stuff than any other kid, but that kids coming of age in the 20th century are just exposed to “so much pretty, shiny stuff” that the feeling of “want” permeated her childhood even though she was not poor. “[…] as toddler screams of fleeting desire gave way to childish passions of slightly longer duration, I began to define my person by what my person wanted.” That’s Lazarovic’s style: juxtaposing flippant, self-deprecating descriptions with thoughtful, sobering statements that make your heart thud with recognition.
From this point on we watch Lazarovic grow into a teenager who shops for clothes impulsively, first at the mall, and then at the thrift store, expressing her identity by spending her entire allowance on flowered boxers from the Gap. Lazarovic quite literally paints this phase of shopping as a gruesome addiction; her teenage self desires “scrunchy” socks with all the self-control of a meth addict. “I was allowed two pairs, but I would have gladly sacrificed a kidney for more. (Better yet, a foot; that way I’d instantly have four pairs.)”
This emphasis on more pops up throughout the book, ultimately becoming the monster Lazarovic must face on her journey to shopping maturity. In the traditional female coming-of-age tale, the lead gathers experience and grows as a person until she “officially” comes of age – i.e. when she secures a husband (and a rich one, especially). One can’t help but think of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, wherein the heroine secures both the husband and the Valentino dress. However, Lazarovic presents her own coming of age as the gained ability to say no to the Valentino dress, or any dress for that matter. In 2006, after realizing that she bought “far too much crap” on the Internet, she decides to kick her impulsive shopping habit by not buying any clothes for a year.
As a sort of therapeutic exercise, Lazarovic individually paints each item of clothing she holds off on, forming a sort of catalogue of coveted goods. She’s hesitant to suggest any sort of epiphany, joking that “The time I used to spend running my fingers across fabrics is now apportioned to other activities…like tweeting and making fun of Twitter.” However, it’s clear that the break from shopping, repeated again in 2012, is what allows her to form a conscientious shopping philosophy – one that is well researched and includes a play on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When shopping, Lazarovic begins focussing on quality rather than quantity. In an ode to Michael Pollan and the slow food movement, she coins the phrase “Buy clothes. Not too many. Mostly quality.” By the end of the book, the teenaged girl who would have cut off her own foot in the name of scrunchy socks is a distant memory. Instead of “you are what you buy!” the message is now “you are what you choose not to buy.”
Lazarovic’s philosophy essentially boils down to that familiar, grandfatherly saying “waste not, want not”, but with a noticeably different take. In Lazarovic’s late-capitalist world, it means something like “shop less wastefully, and your wants may actually subside, allowing you to live a happier, less overwhelmingly consumption-driven life.” But I’m sure that when my grandfather muttered those words over breakfast, he was referring to his experience of a Depression-era economy – don’t waste anything because you never know when scarcity will strike. The problem with our current economy is not scarcity, but the opposite – overabundance. It is up to us to choose how we interact with it.
Not coincidentally, Lazarovic’s anti-consumer guide arrives on shelves just as we begin gearing up for holiday shopping, a cure-all for mob-induced panic attacks.
Shannon Tien is a Vancouver-based writer and editor.Report Typo/Error
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