It’s this country’s favorite form of public interaction and, along with watching television, of recreation. It claims more workers, and fills more space, than any other pursuit—considerably more nonresidential construction is devoted exclusively to it, though you can also do it in museums, houses of worship, airports, and hospitals. It wards off depression, emotional and economic. It reflects and promotes subtle and seismic shifts in societal attitudes, so it’s at once an unstoppable engine of change and among the most fickle, unpredictable, and vulnerable of human activities. It’s the emblem of modernity. Shopping. And in its voracious way it’s also become an increasingly fashionable subject for books.
To be sure, novelists have long probed the topic: Balzac, in a celebrated passage in Lost Illusions, conveyed the fresh seductiveness of the goods on display in the wooden galleries of the Palais-Royal; Flaubert dissected Emma Bovary’s shopping-induced raptures; Zola, in The Ladies’ Paradise, his fictionalized account of Paris’s Le Bon Marche, portrayed both the nitty-gritty workings and the intoxicating allure of that new type of emporium, the department store; Dreiser depicted the novel and intimate pull that consumer goods exercised on the purchaser as his protagonist wandered The Fair, Chicago’s lower-middle-class department store, in Sister Carrie. And shopping is the subject of what has emerged as the greatest ruin of twentieth-century cultural criticism: Walter Benjamin’s pastiche, The Arcades Project—an undeveloped and, at more than 1,000 pages, unfinished (!) minute examination of nineteenth- century Paris’s glass-roofed shopping galleries (distant but distinct precursors of the shopping mall) and of the emergence of consumer capitalism.