Friday, March 28, 2008

Books Can Be Clutter, Too

If you're an avid reader, as I am, you undoubtedly find it easy to accumulate mountains of books. I learned rather quickly that I couldn't possibly keep every book that I read, or even just every book that I read and actually liked (they're not all winners). You've also probably figured out that it doesn't take long to feel totally engulfed by your reading material. And, honestly, after the bookshelves have overflowed, how many stacks of books can be passed off as end-tables before there are more end-tables than ends?

Long ago I entertained a fantasy of having a home large enough to contain a fabulous library, but that fantasy has been replaced by an awareness of its utterly burdensome folly. Now I'm quite content with a reasonable number of bookcases that hold my favorite art books, some useful reference volumes, some sentimental favorites from my not terribly misspent youth, books that I had the privilege of having autographed by their authors, and books that I simply can't let go because they are so entertaining that I've sometimes read them more than once (P.G. Wodehouse, Donald Westlake and a few other writers are priceless gems).

But what does one do with those excess books that invade every nook and cranny? There used to be neighborhood independent bookstores that were perfect havens for old books. You could trade them in for new ones or sometimes sell them outright for a bit of cash. Sadly, those days are almost completely over. Independent bookstores have suffered almost to the point of extinction. Here in Los Angeles, one of the greats, Dutton's Books in Brentwood is closing the end of April. I wrote a blog post in February of last year about the fate of some of the other wonderful independents.

And yet, Powell's goes on. In fact, it seems to be thriving. Thirty-seven years after opening in Portland, Oregon, it remains "a bookstore with a unique recipe that, though viewed as unorthodox, worked: Used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf, open 365 days a year and staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated book lovers." Powell's also made the smart move of putting its entire inventory online in 1996, allowing it to reach a vast reading audience far beyond its current six brick-and-mortar locations.

Best of all for those of us who love to read, Powell's will buy books that are in good condition and even pay the postage to have them mailed to Portland. The process is simple and, although they don't accept every title, it's pretty easy to amass a nice little store credit that you can use to buy more books!

Of course, there are many other possibilities for handling your used books, including donating them. Your neighborhood library has fund-raising book sales, your favorite charity may welcome them, or your local senior center may have a collection that is shared and replenished by the community.

Bookcrossing is an unusual alternative that might appeal to you. It allows you to register any book you have on their site, label it with a Bookcrossing sticker, then "set the book free to travel the world and find new readers. Leave it on a park bench, at a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation. Share it with a friend or tuck it onto a bookshelf at the gym -- anywhere it might find a new reader! What happens next is up to fate, and we never know where our books might travel next. Track the book's journey around the world as it is passed on from person to person." It's also a fun way to make contact on the site with other literature lovers.

In the future, you might want to consider learning to love checking out books from your library. You get the joy of reading them without the job of keeping and disposing of them. If you're still a hardcore, gotta own it book lover, you might want to investigate Amazon.com's Kindle. This wireless reader holds two hundred books in the space of a single paperback. It's expensive (four hundred bucks), and the ten dollar downloads also could quickly add up to a hefty price, but what a great way to keep your favorite books at hand without crowding your living space. No, I don't have one . . . yet. However, I'm surely tempted by its positive reviews.

As for your old books, whatever you decide to do with them is fine as long as you remember that if they sit unread on your shelves or floor, they're not bringing other readers the joy you experienced while reading them. That would be an unfortunate loss. So pass them along and spread the word. Literally.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Discardia: Better Than Festivus

If you've checked your calendar recently, you're probably aware of some rapidly approaching traditional holidays: St. Patrick's Day, Easter, April Fool's Day, Passover, even Earth Day. But are you aware of Discardia?

I first heard about this wonderful holiday through a post last December on pro organizer Jerri Dansky's delightful blog. Discardia is the brainchild of Metagrrrl, aka self-described web geek Dinah Sanders, who, in true Seinfeld spirit, states that the holiday is about nothing. However, she created it on December 25, 2002, which gives us a clue about her motivation. Here's a quote further explaining its purpose:

"Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load."

Discardia holidays (yes, plural) are based on lunar cycles. To be precise, sort of:

"The exact days vary. It takes place in the time between the Solstices & Equinoxes and their following new moons. Sometimes it's short and sometimes it's long."

A calendar can be found here. As you can see, there are four opportunities during 2008 to celebrate. This coming Wednesday, March 19th is the beginning of the next Discardia holiday.

What to do to celebrate? Dinah offers this suggestion:

"[B]ear in mind that obligation is anti-discardian, so you can do whatever suits you - including celebrating Discardia when it isn't Discardia. However, one thing you might like to consider is the idea of culminating the Discardian season with a particular act of letting go. For example, on the Discardian new moon you might decide that you won't buy anything or bring anything into your home and that you will instead just enjoy the fact that you have enough. Or you might make that your night to be completely selfish, avoid all social commitments and do something you really enjoy, regardless of what anyone else thinks or expects of you."

The Discardia posts offer a wealth of information about parting with excess baggage, whether it's literal or psychological, including Dinah's own unburdening of her stuff and her gradual creation of a more satisfying life.

I love the idea of an ongoing, seasonal celebration of letting go. Getting rid of clutter this way doesn't seem like such a chore or a sacrifice, but instead is simply a preparation for a holiday. And if that holiday is celebrated regularly, more and more stuff will get out of our homes and more and more joy will be brought in.

I hope that on April 5th, the last day of this coming Discardia, you, too, will be able to celebrate by saying, "I have enough!"

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, March 03, 2008

Advertising to Children in a Consumer Society

(A software glitch resulted in most of my subscribers not receiving this post last week, so I'm publishing it again. A comment and response are on the original post, dated February 26th, so I'm leaving that post up, too, rather than deleting it. For those of you who are receiving this for the second time, please accept my apologies.)

Even the most sophisticated adults can have their opinions swayed by a clever advertising campaign -- any clever advertising campaign. Ads promoting green products appeal to our desire to help protect our environment. Ads touting luxury goods convince us of the positive impact they'll have on everything from our careers to our sex lives. Ads lure us to shops (or websites) to buy everything from killer shoes to the coolest techno gadgetry to the latest designer furnishings, all of which, according to the ads, surely will improve our status in the eyes of others. The marketers' entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to convince us that whatever they're selling, we'd better hurry up and start buying because we're incomplete or inadequate or simply behind the times if we don't. And those marketers are very, very good at what they do.

So, if an otherwise seemingly rational adult male can be persuaded to spend two months' salary purchasing a diamond engagement ring (an arbitrary amount that the diamond industry decided was "appropriate"), and an apparently sensible woman can be coaxed into changing her wardrobe in order to conform to what's "in style" every season, how does a child react to advertising? No defense mechanisms have been put into place in a child's brain (and look how vulnerable we adults are, even psychologically armed to the hilt with our supposed maturity), so the impact advertisers have is enormous. Multiply this power to influence with the ubiquity and frequency of ads that kids are exposed to, and we have what politicians might call "a situation." I'd call it a disaster.

In a Wall Street Journal article last year about fashion bullying, reporter Vanessa O'Connell explains:

"Guidance counselors and psychologists say fashion bullying is reaching a new level of intensity as more designers launch collections targeted at kids. As a result, an increasing number of school and community programs focused on girl-on-girl bullying are addressing peer pressure and the sizable role clothing plays in girls' identity."

Pressure to conform is nothing new, but O'Connell states, "Teens and adolescents are expected to wear not just any designer brands but the 'right' ones."

I don't believe that an eleven-year-old girl should feel that she must wear the "right" designer just to get through her day at school. It's too much pressure, too soon, and at too great an expense for many families.

Concern about advertising pressure isn't new either. Katherine Knorr wrote an article in the International Herald Tribune back in 1999, shortly after designer Calvin Klein created his disturbing underwear ads featuring children. Knorr comments:

"Clothes catalogues sell skintight two-piece outfits (bra and pedal pushers) advertising the boys band '2 Be 3' (the Chippendales for the pre-teen set) to 10-year-olds. The boys in the band are bare-chested. The little girl models strike alluring poses. . . . The marketing of clothes — some of them pretty raunchy — to children and pre-teens raises all sorts of issues about what clothes 'mean,' and about the influence of the vast network of popular culture salesmanship and the sickening cult of celebrity. It is ironic that, as fashion enters the third millennium, clothes for grown-up women have become positively genteel, with the twin set seeming ubiquitous and even the bad Brits toned down. It seems the real fashion victims now are Lolita's age."

Nine years later, the twin set may not be de rigeur for the average woman, but selling provocative clothing to kids has become an even bigger business.

James U. McNeal wrote an article for the Center for Media Literacy called, "From Savers to Spenders: How Children Became a Consumer Market," excerpted from a book he had published in 1987. He came to a conservative and rather polite conclusion:

". . . something needs to be done to improve the marketing-child consumer connection. A strong relationship is a good thing for marketers - it means sales and profits now, and even greater sales and profits in the future. It is a good thing for children - it provides enormous input to their consumer socialization process as well as current satisfaction from products and their purchase of them. But no one should forget that children, particularly those under eight, are vulnerable to commercial abuses. Marketers have been shown to be abusive to children far too many times for their good will to be assumed." [Italics mine.]

Bringing us back to more recent material, The American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in December of 2006 called "Children, Adolescents and Advertising" which concluded:

"Advertising is a pervasive influence on children and adolescents. Young people view more than 40 000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use. Media education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents."

Here's an excerpt from a market research company report on advertising to kids in China:

"As China develops into one of the world’s largest economies, and its consumer market grows in world significance, so the Chinese consumer of tomorrow has become the focus of huge amounts of product and brand marketing expenditure. If the children of today can be made loyal to a brand now, what potential for sales in the future, in a country where the economy continues to grow at over 9% a year? China’s children are bombarded with media messages from all angles, all the time - from billboards, posters, TV at home, TV in taxis, cinemas, magazines, food packaging, lunch boxes, clothing, text messages, websites, store shelves, radios, etc. All of this is having an effect, and some of it detrimental. Childhood obesity rates are soaring, and rates of depression and mental health problems are also increasing. . . This is also the generation of the One Child Policy - the 'little emperors', doted upon by two parents and up to four grandparents, plus various aunts and uncles. Only children, in a society of only children, will learn to, and be expected to behave differently, more pressure to succeed will be placed upon them, and all of this is affecting how these children see themselves within their society, and how this affects their behaviour as people, and as consumers."

There's a wealth of information available in print and online that discusses, debates and attempts to explain the process of advertising to kids and the results we're all living with today. If this is an issue that interests or perhaps infuriates you, here are just a few links worth exploring:

The Center for Media Literacy website has a substantial and interesting list of articles in its Parents, Kids and Media section. Topics range from Economic Lessons for Young Viewers to Altered States: How Television Changes Childhood.

Global Issues has a full section called Children as Consumers with many links on the topic.

Get a Canadian perspective on the problem at About Kids Health.

Get an Australian perspective at Natural News.

Although there's much more available to read, you might want to conclude by reviewing the Special Report: Marketing to Children from Direct, a magazine that gives the marketer's point of view and makes clear the significance of kids as consumers. The report's opening line:

"What do you call someone who makes post-purchase decisions? Answer: A parent."

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Faith Popcorn Says It's Cooler Not to Spend

If anything indicates that we've probably reached a cultural "tipping point," as Malcolm Gladwell would put it, it's when a topic hits Oprah's TV show at the same time that "trend oracle" Faith Popcorn makes a pronouncement about it. In this case, Oprah did a show featuring a segment by Lisa Ling about the Freegans and Faith Popcorn was just quoted in a USA Today article saying that it's cooler not to spend money.

The USA Today article also quotes futurist and business trend adviser Watts Wacker: "The new status isn't how much you've got, but your ability to show what you don't spend. This is a seminal moment. It's not a fad that will die out when the economy picks up." [italics mine]

Could this possibly be true? Have that many people finally realized that buying more and more stuff isn't the path to personal fulfillment?

Maybe. Or maybe people are just being pushed in that direction by economic considerations. USA Today continues:

"There's a sense that prices are rising — and will continue to rise — but wages will not," says Ken Goldstein, economist at The Conference Board. "This is squeezing household budgets whether they're $200 per week or $200,000 per year. Folks are looking closely at anything they don't have to purchase now."

Whatever the motivation, I'm pleased to hear that it's now "officially" cool to be living with less.

I don't have any plans to go dumpster diving with the Freegans, but I have absolutely no problem being cool.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob