Matthew Braga is a freelance writer based in Toronto
I was litter box shopping last year when a thought crossed my mind: Would my cats really care if this stylish, well-reviewed plastic receptacle for poop and pee was the best that money could buy? I knew I certainly would. I don’t live in an especially large apartment. This is an object that I would have to stare at every day – while I worked, while I cooked, while I read. Something modern would be nice! But in Canada, this particular fashionable cat toilet was nowhere to be found. I found myself at a loss. Everything else seemed of dubious quality; there were no glowing blog posts, no heated forum discussions of pros and cons, no detailed comparison tests or long-term reviews.
After days, maybe weeks of this, I realized that perhaps I had finally gone a bit too far. For as long as I can remember, my approach to shopping has been to seek out The Best – not necessarily the most expensive, most popular or most well-reviewed, but something I can trust is worth the money, and most importantly, built to last. The internet has made this easier than ever. For pretty much any product imaginable – a phone, a pillow, a dutch oven, a camp chair – I know there’s probably a detailed, authoritative, definitive guide to tell me which brand, which model, is best. Even better if there’s a link to an online store, and better still if the item is actually in stock. It doesn’t take all the guesswork out of the process, but it helps.
The downside, of course, is I’ve come to trust that the internet will lead me in the right direction a bit too much. Comparing the relative merits of pricey televisions, that I can understand – investments big enough, expensive enough, that you’d rather not have to repeat the process again anytime soon. But a litter box? A litter box is more nebulous (and the choice of whether or not to accept it into my home is ultimately up to the cats). Perhaps, I thought, not everything warrants the kind of rigorous testing I’ve come to expect of a new camera or phone, where the features are more easily comparable from one product to the next. So I went the utilitarian route, bought a glorified Rubbermaid container from my local pet shop with a hole in the lid, and you know what? It’s been absolutely fine.
It was a tiny revelation, a little spark that started a fire. I’m starting to come around to the idea that you don’t always have to buy the best – that, sometimes, it’s actually better to simply settle for what’s closest, what’s available, what works, whatever that means to you.
In moments of indecisiveness, my partner likes to remind me of the time I bought an electric razor – not so much the razor itself, but the process of buying the razor, a process that took years. In that time I researched, I deliberated. I weighed my options carefully. Eventually, I would have to make a decision, but I was paralyzed by choice. This wasn’t the first time, either. I’ve waited far longer than is reasonable to buy things I need – boxer briefs, moisturizer – out of fear that I might buy something subpar. I’ve gone on quixotic chases for the exact make and model a reviewer recommends, wary of the unseen differences lurking inside. It doesn’t feel good to be wrong, to feel the regret and frustration of a badly made choice. Even a good choice can eventually become bad with time – such is the nature of obsolesce – and there will always be something better before long. Maybe you, too, have pored over blog posts like sacred texts, trying to divine the right thing to buy at exactly the right time.
In just the past few months, I’ve agonized over a new pair of slippers (my feet sweat), a muffin pan (needs to cook evenly), a soundbar for my television (hell is learning about “pro audio”), a power outlet extension cord (it has to be at least 15 feet, but also have more than three plugs), a left-handed soup ladle (not for me, we all make sacrifices for love). I’ve read meticulous guides to bathrobes and bedsheets, paper shredders and meat thermometers. I’m skeptical of things that haven’t been run through the review wringer – as if that’s a sign a product is untested, untrustworthy, and not just a commodity item so basic and widely used it likely doesn’t justify an in-depth review. I’m like Mr. Burns comparing Ketchup and Catsup. I’ve climbed down deep philosophical rabbit holes, questioning the very nature of perfection. What does best mean, anyway? Best for who? Did you know that Plato believed no earthly object could ever compare to its ideal form – that no bathrobe will ever be as perfect as the bathrobe you envision in your mind?
I keep trying to fool myself into thinking perfection can be objective, when really, it’s a matter of perspective. Even the most objective reviews are subjective, a matter of personal taste. I’ve learned the hard way that what I like or prefer may not be what most people consider “best” – that the rankings and testimonies I read aren’t always right for me. Something can be the best for sentimental reasons, for tradition. It can be the most stylish choice, or the one you can afford. Some people prefer the simple, analog option in an overwhelmingly digital world. It can be the recommendation of a trusted friend, or the most environmentally sustainable option. It can be based entirely on context, on time, on place – an okay wine elevated by company, by occasion. There are some things you can’t capture in a blog post, a guide, a review. Deep down I know this, that nothing can ever be so simple. But that doesn’t make it any easier to resist.
One of my favourite possessions is a pair of Red Wing boots that I’ve owned for more than 8 years. I clean them often, work cream into the leather to restore their glow, and have them resoled every two years. They’ve survived countless winters, and been a temporary home to moths. They tick all the right boxes on quality, longevity, cost. And I was able to buy them in person, not far from my home. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the pandemic has reminded me just how important proximity can be. Sometimes, the best thing is a thing you can buy nearby.
I used to feel mildly alarmed when I saw a recommendation for a product I couldn’t buy – a very specific terrazzo planter or a ceramic coffee mug, perhaps, with no local supplier and no Canadian shipping. Were retailers somehow conspiring to keep Canadians from the best? The reality, I think, is much more mundane – that, as much as the internet has broken down borders, it often assumes we’re all in the same place, with access to all the same things. Niche or regional products can easily get elevated to an audience far wider than a product was ever intended – sometimes at the expense of local options that are just as good, if not better. It doesn’t mean you can’t get the best wherever you are, it just hasn’t been anointed as such.
But if a thing has no five star rating, no Amazon’s Best, does it even exist? As easy as it is to be seduced by a definitive pronouncement, I’m increasingly skeptical of how these conclusions are reached – whether something can only be best if Amazon sells it, or if a sale nets the reviewer a cut. Some sites are more reputable in their methods, more transparent than others – for The Wirecutter I’m eternally grateful, even if I don’t always agree with all their picks – but it’s a tricky world to navigate, to separate which is which.
I’ve been taking refuge in the bricks and mortar. Increasingly, I’ve been relying on the expertise and authority of the staff working my local neighbourhood stores. It’s gift-giving season, even if I’ll be giving from afar, and I’ve been buying books and kitchen equipment from sellers nearby. I know there’s probably a guide out there to the best winter hat – but to me, it’s the stylish marled green toque from the Canadian outfitter a few blocks away. I’m also trying to remind myself that not everything we buy has to be meticulously ranked or reviewed. Perhaps the best purchases are the ones that help the shops in my neighbourhood survive. Perhaps I was onto something when I bought that litter box into my home. I don’t know anyone else who has one like it, but it’s the best for me.
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