Recently, novelist and co-owner of Parnassus Books—the bookstore in Nashville on every writer’s bucket list, mine included—Ann Patchett wrote “My Year of No Shopping” as an essay for the New York Times Sunday Review. Among NYT readers it was the talk of holiday gatherings. As it should be. Ms. Patchett wrote an essay about “need” versus “want” that was by turns eloquent, self-deprecating, winsome and wise. She worked in faith; her upbringing as a Catholic and her annual Lenten sacrifices had been an excellent proving ground for a year-long abnegation of acquisition for acquisition’s sake. She pondered “the rules.” Clothing and speakers were out; grocery store purchases, including flowers, were in. Also allowed: such consumables as shampoo and batteries, but only after depleting what was at hand. Gifts were permitted, keeping in mind that Ms. Patchett has a bookstore and books make excellent gifts. There was room for exceptions: when her editor got married, Ms. Patchett did not give him a book. (I’ll call that her “no coals to Newcastle” exception.)
Wow, what a great idea! I know, because someone pitched exactly the same one to me in 2010 when I was editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine and I tried to convince my bosses on the newspaper side what a great idea it was. The woman who pitched it was articulate and witty; the diary of her “Year of No Shopping” was engaging and funny. But, although she was well-connected in the community, her name was not recognizable. In what was then the depths of the Great Recession, I thought it would make an excellent essay in “Opinion” (just like the New York Times did), or even as a counter intuitive piece in “Image,” The LA Times style section. My boss said the idea was “stupid”; actually, there was an F-bomb as an adjective, but I digress. I’m sure the woman who pitched me the idea read the NYT piece and emitted a pronounced “harrumph.” I know I did.
But what made writing a piece about not shopping for an entire year and its attached philosophical strings interesting? Something the editors knew readers would read? Ann Patchett. I mean, really, Ms. Patchett’s grocery lists would, rightly, attract eyeballs. She has well-deserved recognizable name and when someone of her stature posits an idea, that idea rises to the top of the heap. Her byline alone attracted readers. I’m not writing this out of sour grapes. I feel bad for the woman who pitched me, she had this idea almost a decade earlier, but I understand why Ms. Patchett’s essay went viral now. It’s the power of celebrity; to get attention for something that might otherwise go unnoticed. In and of itself, this power to attract attention is neither good nor bad. Ideas and actions in the hands of celebrities run the gamut: In Ann Patchett’s capable hands, her ideas and actions are thought provoking; in the hands of others, they could end life on earth.