Empire of Things by Frank Trentman

I’ll start this review with the most obvious point: this book is Not Small. Weighing in at 862 pages, it is hardly a little light reading. It is also quite difficult to read on the train, being huge and a hardback.

For such a big book spanning such wide subject matter, however, it is surprisingly readable. I got through it in a few days, because I devour books the way other people devour pizza (I also devour pizza), and I found the writing style to be just right: not too dense, but also not patronising the reader.

Trentman’s ambitious goal was to describe how consumption came about – or, as the subheading of his book states: “How we became a world of consumers, from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first”.

Empire of Things by Frank Trentman
Empire of Things by Frank Trentman

I bought it because I’m interested in society and how it has changed. I don’t read a lot about consumerism or market trends, because in general I’m not particularly interested in it as a subject. What I am in terested in, however, is how humanity has changed over the centuries and – more importantly, perhaps – how it has stayed the same.

I was hoping when I read this book to see something of human nature expressed through the increasingly consumer-oreinted lifestyles we are leading in the 21st century, and I was not disappointed.

However, I was a little surprised, in a good way.

I was expecting a sort of liberal rant about how we’ve lost all sense of ourselves now that we buy so much Stuff, and how the good cohesive elements that used to hold society together have been gradually dying out.

Trentman does address this view, but the book is immensely well-researched and a huge effort is made not to overexaggerate any elements of purchasing preference. Throughout the book he addresses not only the trends themselves, but also society’s reactions to them – and, unusually, the book spans the whole world, not just the west.

It is, in summary, a hugely impressive work of sociological history, and one I think anyone should read if they are interested in how we have developed into a culture of consumers.


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