Newest Review: ... policies, such as paying parents the national average wage to look after their children (thus raising the status of parents rather tha... more
Tamiflu won't stop this...
Affluenza - Oliver James
Member Name: ms_memory
Affluenza - Oliver James
Date: 04/04/10, updated on 04/04/10 (85 review reads)
Advantages: Thought-provoking, entertaining
Disadvantages: Annoying, patronising, poorly edited, cringeworthy
** Introduction **
Are you infected with the affluenza virus? That's what I wanted to know when I picked up this book recently. Affluenza, as defined by the author Oliver James, is a 'disease' characterised by obsession with money, possessions, social/physical appearances and fame. If allowed to develop unchecked, it can lead to 'emotional distress', which is James' umbrella term for mental illnesses. The first thing I saw upon opening the book was a short questionnaire. After answering all the questions I was alarmed to learn that yes, I have 'contracted' affluenza. I was surprised, as I don't consider myself that materialistic and I try to live my life as I want without worrying what other people think of me. The second questionnaire, though, revealed that my affluenza had not yet lead to emotional distress. It's a clever ploy, to have these quizzes at the beginning of the book. Although I was a bit cynical about whether I really was affected by 'affluenza' I definitely wanted to read on!
** Structure of the book **
Part One describes the 'virus' and gives us examples from interviews that James conducted with 240 people in several destinations around the world (UK, New York, Shanghai, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong and Moscow). So we learn about the paranoid American billionaire with no friends, the British trophy wife who wants to kill herself, young girls with eating disorders, people in jobs they hate who are too scared to quit in case people think badly of them... It's not all doom and gloom, since Denmark is portrayed as a more relaxed and less affluenza-driven society, but in the main the mood is pretty grim.
Part Two tells us about the 'vaccines' against affluenza: what we can do to inoculate ourselves against the virus, or cure ourselves if we already have it. Here the examples of unhappy, affluenza-stricken people continue, but each section finishes with some recommendations. There are some extreme stories of obsession with social appearances and fame, such as a 3-year-old Chinese child being 'mind-managed' by his over-ambitious parents to become a global leader (he attends school all day, then has evening classes and attends a children's MBA programme at weekends). We also learn of female students at Oxford University whose sole aim is to get into merchant banking and make money. But there are also more mundane examples of obsession with physical appearances, like competitive new mothers in Sydney desperate to get their figures back as soon as possible. There are also young girls chasing high grades to the point of depression and ordinary UK workers who are slaves to their mortgages.
Some of the vaccines, or solutions, put forward include getting more involved in the community, taking up hobbies that are exciting and absorbing (not self-improving), choosing a job you love over pay or status, and learning to distinguish between your wants and your needs.
Part Three is Oliver James' own personal 'manifesto' on how the world must change if we are to avoid affluenza-driven emotional distress. There are ideas for new government policies, such as paying parents the national average wage to look after their children (thus raising the status of parents rather than forcing them back into the workplace too soon, to the detriment of their babies' upbringing), or banning foreign nationals from having a large stake in the British media. These things sound idealistic, writes James, but big changes are necessary if we want to be healthier and happier.
** So is it a good read? **
I found some of it really absorbing, particularly the interviews with people around the world and the insights into other countries and cultures and their social systems. Affluenza, or the ideas behind it, is certainly something that is causing problems in our world and needs to be addressed. But there were also lots of elements to this book that nearly drove me up the wall!
Firstly, it is full of examples of people in various affluenza-driven predicaments, but it would have been helpful to have more examples of people doing 'the right thing' as well: e.g. it's all very well to tell us we should be choosing jobs we love rather than ones that pay the bills, but where are the examples of people who do this, and what advice would they give to poor affluenza-ridden souls like me? There are some examples of how things are better in Denmark, but they're sweeping statements rather than individual case-studies.
Secondly, and this really annoyed me, James contradicts himself on some important points. We are told we should do work that makes us intrinsically happy, so-called 'flow' activities (the kind that are so much fun that time seems to fly when you're doing them). But elsewhere in the book, we are warned that once you start getting paid for fun activities they lose their attraction. This is backed up by scientific studies and a further example is given is of a man James knew who gave up his boring job to do what he loved - scriptwriting - and found that once he was writing for money he developed writer's block and couldn't do it. This left me confused - should I work in the area I'm most interested or save it as a hobby and do work I don't care about?
James also withholds information until later on in the book. For example, I am apparently suffering from afffluenza because I would like to be more wealthy i.e. earn more money, according to the questionnaire at the beginning of the book. But towards the end of the book I learned that, according to James, virus goals (wanting money) are not damaging; it's the motivation that is harmful. So if I want more money so that I can help my family or start a business, then that's fine. But of course, the questionnaire doesn't take motivation into account and is very general ('very wealthy' means different things to different people). Is this just a clever way of convincing more people that they have affluenza and need to buy the book?
I found so many niggling points in this book that I could go on and on. For instance, we are told (in the 'vaccines' part, not the more idealistic Part Three) that we should avoid taking out credit we can't afford and should settle for cheaper housing and easily affordable mortgages. I, for one, would love Mr James to let me know where all this affordable housing is in the UK. We should also refrain from chasing high grades at school or university. Again it's all very well to say that, but if I'm going to do the job I love (as James recommends) then I need to do postgraduate study, and for that I need high grades. He suggests that high grades are only about self esteem and doesn't appear to acknowledge that for some people studying hard and passing exams is an intrinsically enjoyable activity (honestly, I really enjoy exams; I get a lot of satisfaction out of them. Some people like jobs where they are put on the spot and required to think on their feet, I am one of them).
There is also a lot of generalisation concerning the interviewees that were picked, such as the two British students that feature in the book: they are both at Oxford University (one at an all-girls' college). They are hardly representative of British students as a whole, and not all students want to be investment bankers, contrary to what James would have us believe. I would also have liked to know more about how his interviewees abroad were selected - we're told that the British Council helped him find people in the various countries, so does this mean that the interviewees came from a limited demographic (people with connections to a British cultural organisation)? Were they all interviewed in English or were they interviewed through an interpreter? These factors could affect how they understood the questions and how James understood their answers.
** $$$$$ in his eyes **
At one point I also felt the author was plugging his books. He also recommends that the vast majority of us need therapy to 'sort out' our childhoods and recommends that this be followed up by a type of therapy retreat that costs thousands of pounds. I found his belief that most of his readers need to see medical professionals to cope with their parents' behaviour quite offensive and patronising.
** A style of writing that only a mother (or father!) could love **
James employs a huge and varied vocabulary in his book (I had to get out the dictionary a fair few times), which I have no problem with. What I didn't like was his pompous tone and his strange habit of mixing different registers in the same sentence, even going so far as to misspell things on purpose ("any fule kno", "m'man"). I'm not sure whether this was supposed to make him sound more chatty/lively or make his prose more accessible to young readers. Or maybe he was poking fun of people who speak like that? Either way, it comes across as strange and breaks up the flow of his writing.
Elsewhere James' ideas are presented in a very long-winded way, with in-depth analysis of his interviewees that would surely only be interesting to them. It's just like listening to someone describe their dreams, which the author also does. Even worse, he goes a step further and recounts his father's recurring dreams, even though they are not really relevant to what he is explaining. It's unnecessary and James knows it, sheepishly suggesting that he should stop before the reader throws the book across the room in frustration. There is also a fair amount of irrelevant name-dropping (his father knew Freud's daughter, he has interviewed famous people, blah blah blah) though there is little information of what James actually does aside from writing articles, or what his qualifications are. It would have been good to have a little more professional information about the author.
By far the most irritating element for me though, was James' insistence on using his family as examples. They pop up throughout the book, especially his young daughter, who he is obviously totally enamoured with (and why shouldn't he be?), but whose ever-so-cute actions and comments have little place in a book like this. We are even treated to a demonstration of how she pronounces things ("gweat big", "teffone"). I can see how children's development is occasionally relevant to his arguments, but does the daughter really have to be wheeled out each time? And if so, why is his son so absent? The worst example of this is in the epilogue, where James tells us there is hope for the future of mankind despite the threat of affluenza, then uses himself, his mother and his daughter as examples. In the acknowledgments section he thanks someone for warning him that his first draft of the book was 'self-obsessed'. It's a pity he didn't act on this advice.
It's also a shame the book wasn't edited properly. In his (rather patronising) separate advice sections for men and women towards the end of the book, James repeatedly tells us to turn back to certain pages and re-read the bits where he mentions relevant studies. The only problem is, these studies are not on the pages he mentions, so his advice is rendered useless.
** Conclusion **
This book throws up some really interesting ideas. The virus analogy is a good way of putting forward the problems within our society, and I agree that the way we live nowadays is far from ideal, and that changes could be made to make our lives more emotionally satisfying. I really enjoyed reading the interviews with people around the world and gaining insights into how people live and think in other countries.
However, the author's ideas on how we can improve our lives struck me as very simplistic and patronising - I felt like I was being told off and I could see contradictions in his arguments. I resented the fact that he used the book to advertise his other books and certain kinds of therapy. In addition, the style of the author's writing and his propensity to write about himself and his family too much was also extremely annoying.
If I'm honest though, I do enjoy a bit of debate and argument, and actually I really got a lot out of reading this book, even if it did make me want to scream at times. I quite like being irritated and for that reason I'm giving the book 4 stars. Do psychologists have a name for that, I wonder?
** The book is 553 pages long, including notes, appendix and acknowledgements ***
Summary: I don't regret reading it though!
- London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games
- Stitching for Beginners and Beyond - Anna Scott
- The Atari Book - 40th Anniversary Special
- Cat with Piano Tuna - Simon Drew
- The Complete Book of Baby Names - Lesley Bolton
- One Straw Revolution - Masanobu Fukuoka
- Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure - Joseph Jenkins
- Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Prof. Richard Wiseman