My first book of 2011 was Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. I read her The Hungry Gene, about the physiology of fatness (whoo!) a while ago and enjoyed it, so I was excited to hear that she had tackled a topic which weighs (Oh! No pun intended!) on my mind quite often: cheapness. My concern is mainly that most things are now too cheap to mend: clothes, electronics, furniture, if something breaks, rips, or wears out there's no chance you can get a North American to repair it for less than you can get someone in Asia to make a new one, even though it's not a particularly good one and you know it's going to break in 2 to 5 years anyway. As a result, our homes and landfills are full of flimsy, disappointing crap.
This book is about exactly that. Shell covers all the whys and wherefores of what make things so cheap these days: discount retailers, the history of sales, globalisation and sweatshops, and the erosion of quality in mainstream goods. The book is informative yet readable, and covers enough ground that I had a pretty thorough understanding of the big picture of cheapness when I'd finished reading it.
Shell did try pretty hard to get me to hate Ikea, and never managed it. Yes, some of the stuff they sell is shoddy (caveat emptor — some of it is just fine) and they have giant stores out in the suburbs which force people to drive out there (I manage to shop at Ikea without driving, and anyway I only go once a year so even if I did drive it wouldn't be a disaster). Also they make everything cheap by passing on the assembly work to you the customer (again, caveat emptor: you know what you're getting into. Plus you can hire dudes to assemble your Ikea furniture, at least in Toronto.) She turns her nose up at their attempts to make sure their wood is environmentally and ethically sourced, and I agree that they could probably stand to, oh, quadruple their forestry oversight department, but hey, at least they have one. Anyway, I'm sure it's just that I've been brainwashed by the overall adorableness of Ikea, but I just can't hate them as much as Shell clearly wants me to. But I do shop there are mindfully as I shop everywhere else.
Apart from our minor disagreement about the evilness of Ikea, Shell convinced and entertained me with this book. I look forward to her next one.