I’d like to think that I’m a unique individual, a sentient being of purpose, a singular person making a unique way in this ginormous world, and a self-made man (not that I’m wealthy or powerful– quite the contrary). David Brooks tells me that I’m not unique at all, and my clever definition of ‘self-made man’ isn’t unique, either. No, I’m wholly derivative, exactly like a whole class of people just like me. Like a monkey in a jungle full of monkeys, I’m just going along with the crowd. And he has a nifty term for me, too: Bobo (bourgeois bohemian).
In his 2001 book that I’m just finding out about (which makes me doubly-derivative), Mr. Brooks tells me what car I drive, what I eat, where I live, how I feel, what books I read, what computer I use, what I drink, what I wear, what I watch on TV, and why I have put my life together as I have. Indeed, he can tell you why I read this book, and why I bought it used. Moreover, he can even tell you why I read it at the laundromat. Even more to the point, why I proudly visit the laundromat, hang with the homies and munch on salteñas from the gas station across the street, but then read books about -ologies (psychology, sociology, theology) during the dry-cycle and listen to podcasts on my (black, video) iPod while I fold.
It is because I cut my teeth in college on bohemian ideals, but when those ideals became mainstream (bourgeois), I tried to find some downward mobility in my upward life. So instead of choosing one culture, or one expression of myself, I engineered a careful mash-up, a shining Third Way (which term is also Bobo). So I torture myself with my own angst and attempted self-displacement: I buy antique (or antiqued) furniture and brand-new computers. I listen to old music on new technology. I have top-shelf backpacking equipment, and haven’t been hiking in years. I pay extra money for distressed clothes. I live in a tiny apartment in the middle of one of the most affluent areas in the country. I listen to Psalters and I shop at Target. I pinch pennies every day, but have a passport for every member of the family. I do manual labor and write about it on a blog (that I pretend no one reads). I reject status symbols to raise my status, all the while becoming more like the people all around me. So anti-status symbols become status symbols, and we all scramble around to try to be counter-cultural.
It was a fascinating read, looking into this mirror. But the book was a little laborious after the halfway point, and I wished I had stopped before I waded into his overly speculative psychologizing. His chapter on intellectual life seemed self-indulgent as he claimed superiority over his own profession, though its cathartic tone was indulgently refreshing. In his own efforts to be snarky and hip, he references the same Krakauer book twice, which bugged me. His chapter on spirituality missed the obvious point that by its very nature, religion tends toward searching for some rootedness in tradition, and is also a denial of individualism. Though I enjoyed the book, I found it a little too cute, sardonic, and with tongue too far in his cheek. But it could be that I’m bitter, because he’s so danged right.