A Book About What Your Stuff Says About You Doesn't Reveal Enough
Whenever I invite some new lady friend back to Chez Joab for the first time, I invariably run into the same problem: Her arrival is preceded with about four hours of frantic house cleaning on my part. And about halfway through my tizzy of scrubbing and scraping and mopping, a sense of futility sets in. Sure, the kitchen counter is clean, but any truly observant chick could take one look at the dust behind the bookcase, or the grit caking the washing machine, and tell, instantly and correctly, that I'm a slob.
Sam Gosling, author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You (Basic Books), might say my bachelor love pad is not "tidy," but rather has been "tidied." For a woman looking for a neat mate, observing such a minute distinction could save weeks' worth of dating.
Gosling's concept in Snoop is pretty darn alluring: By carefully observing all the seemingly inconsequential bric-a-brac around a person, you can gain valuable insights into his personality. Your TiVo, your iPod, the cut of your hair, the brand of your shoe, the wear on your tire tread, all read like a novel, one called Your Name Here.
"Much of the stuff we gather about us and the environments we create are there not to send messages about our identities but specifically to manage our emotions and thoughts," Gosling writes. Reverse-engineering your roommates' decision to hang a Reservoir Dogs poster on the wall could reveal more about the person than you'd care to know, if you sat and thought about it long enough--in theory anyway. Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, fails to explore fully the vast richness of the very sort of snooping he advocates.
Two problems dog this book. First, Gosling is stingy with instruction. Gosling visits Good Morning America and other TV shows to rifle through offices and boxes full of belongings and then arrive at conclusions about the personalities of their owners. GMA host Charles Gibson, we find out, wants to be organized but just doesn't have time to do so. Aside from a few high-profile jobs, though, Gosling doesn't provide many real-life examples of snooping.
In a way, Gosling cheats in the same way Arthur Conan Doyle did in his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The startling conclusions that Holmes arrived at always seemed to involve a few choice facts undisclosed to the reader. In the end, what we learned from Doyle's books was not how to observe and analyze, but that Holmes was amazing at observation and analysis. We get a similar message about Gosling, from Gosling.
Worse yet, Gosling sees everything through his own perspective as a shrink. Preparing us to know what to look for, he offers a mini- psychology course on personality types. We learn that all people's personalities can be gauged along a few general traits, such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Moreover, each personality trait manifests itself through artifacts of people's lives. Conscientious people tend to have neat houses, open people tend to have varied book collections, and so on. But such sweeping generalizations don't help in serious snooping. If I'm already in someone's house, I pretty much have a good idea how neurotic, conscientious, etc. the person is.
As if this vague pigeonholing wasn't vague enough, Gosling even devotes a chapter to defending stereotypes. "If you didn't use stereotypes, you would be overwhelmed, because every item, person, and experience in life would have to be treated as though it were a totally new experience, not part of a broader class," he writes, oblivious to how stereotyping is mutually exclusive with close observation. Thus, Germans are industrious, Californians are laid-back, and so on.
Good snooping is not only a matter of keeping your peepers open; you also have to know the meaning of what you are looking at. And psychology is far from the only divining rod for meaning. The attentive lover and the homicide detective both watch you closely, though they look for different things. Gosling admits as much, but largely charges ahead, relying on his hopelessly vague psychology.
Oddly enough, Gosling quotes a book--and a novel at that--that better gets the concept of snooping than he himself does: Martin Amis' first novel, 1973's The Rachel Papers, about a character who elaborately stages every object and facet in his life in order to make him more appealing to the women he tries to seduce. Amis is probably more qualified to explain the meaning of stuff than Gosling. After all, fiction is all about fleshing out a story through details. In a well-written story, every object must carry some meaning, act as a clue for the reader. A few select details can unveil an entire personality.
Nor does literature have a lock on this language of things. Philosophers have long known that any thing whatsoever can be subjected to philosophical inquiry; this is why philosophers are fun at parties. "Theory today makes a `text' out of almost anything," Marshall Blonsky wrote in his 1992 doorstop of a treatise on semiotics, American Mythologies. "Political power is a text to be read; daily life is a text to be deciphered; consumer goods are a textual system; also the star system, one's gender, one's body, our walking, our shopping, none of which are human nature--they are constructs."
In other words, there's a whole rich world of stuff ready to divulge secrets about its owners. Too bad Gosling misses most of this world.
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