By Barbara Miner
Any book that refers to "lifelong puerility" in its first sentence is going to be a tough slog. Luckily, the book in question — Benjamin Barber's Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole — is worth the work.
First, about "puerility." After turning to the dictionary, I found that it is the noun form of puerile, which is defined as "belonging to childhood; juvenile; immature, childish." While I first suspected Barber was merely an academic in love with big words, I came to think that he was instead trying to be careful and choose the best word possible for what is a complicated and nuanced analysis.
Consumed, first published last year and released in paperback this spring, takes on the difficult task of trying to not only understand modern-day capitalism and its consumer culture, but to place it in its historical context and show how it differs from the market-based economies of earlier centuries. Equally important, he lays out the consumer culture's threats to democracy, and explores what might be ways to resist consumer culture and re-energize public institutions.
It's a tall order, and it is both a strength and weakness of the book that Barber expects a certain intellectual tenacity from the reader. On the plus side, the book shies away from simplistic analyses. On the other hand, it is sometimes dry as dust. Barber is a senior fellow at Demos, a national public policy organization based in New York City, and a professor at the University of Maryland. The author of 17 books, he is perhaps best known to educators for his plea for democratic schooling in his 1992 book The Aristocracy of Everyone.