Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers by Frank Trentmann

This is a book about, well, stuff — what, how and why we consume.

The author, a historian, chronicles consumer culture over six centuries in a detailed and scholarly exposition, in the least dull way imaginable.

The acquisition, flow and use of “things” characterises much of our lives, and Trentmann goes to great lengths to help us understand how material consumption unfolded, all the way from Renaissance Italy (where households started accumulating silverware and tableware as markers of domestic sociability and politeness) and late Ming China to today’s global economy and our modern material world.

The influence of trade routes and conquests on tastes is curious, as is the author’s description of the role and continuity of coffee, tobacco, cotton, pensions and credit cards.

As impressive as the details are, the book is about more than consumerism through the ages. You learn, for example, that consumption has the ability to shape habits and behaviour.

Consider this: By 1914, “exotic” beverages such as coffee and tea were pushed as essential foods for strong industrial nations — they were no longer the discerning choice of the “refined few”.

Industrial firms rationalised work schedules to boost workers’ energy and concentration — instead of a long pause in the middle of the day, firms began introducing, wait for it: coffee breaks.

Don’t let the size put you off — it’s a nearly 700-page tome. R295

Done: The Secret Deals that are Changing Our World by Jacques Peretti

Peretti is a BBC investigative reporter and journalist at The Guardian.

 

The entire book feels like a big fat news scoop. You’re getting intel on backroom deals that never made the news and how they revolutionise everything we do — from what we eat and buy to what medication we take.

I won’t lie, the book has a slightly dystopian feel to it; but not in a way that leaves you thinking the author is a kook. He presents both facts and philosophical questions that will, I’m sure, unnerve and entertain.

While you’re at it, Peretti has presented some award-winning TV series. I liked The Men Who Made Us Fat and The Super-Rich and Us. R323.

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google by Scott Galloway

This is a book easily devoured in an afternoon. Galloway is a marketing professor at NYU Stern School of Business. If you didn’t know, he’s the guy who first touted the then wild idea of Amazon buying Whole Foods. His book examines the rise of the titans of tech.

He asks (and answers) some big questions. How it is that “The Four” (Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple) came to infiltrate our lives so completely that they’re almost impossible to avoid (or boycott)? Can anyone really challenge them — is there a “Fifth Horseman” (Alibaba, Uber, Tesla) among the emerging companies that have the attention of Wall Street and the world?

The book contains really great insight and interesting perspectives, some of which you might not agree with. The writing is good; Galloway is a natural storyteller. R328.

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