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Best Beach Reads: 'Babbitt'

Susan Lee

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: Whether you're stuck at the office or fighting traffic on the way home, there are plenty of places you'd probably rather be right now. If one of them's heading to the beach with a good paperback and a couple hours to kill, you've come to the just the right place.

As part of our annual Best Marketplace Beach Reads series once again this year we've asked some of our commentators for their nominations.

Economist Susan Lee leads off today with a hero from before the Great Depression, but whose story is going to sound familiar to anybody who's been following today's housing market.


Susan Lee: "He made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay."

That's 46-year-old George F. Babbitt in 1920. He's the endearingly-boorish title character of Sinclair Lewis' novel set in the Midwestern city of Zenith. Almost 90 years have come and gone, but Babbitt's world is stunningly familiar. For starters, he's an aggressive real estate broker of the kind recently encountered in the housing bubble. Babbitt is slightly crooked, not above a bit of self-dealing with a nod from his bank.

A lot about life in Zenith is recognizable. Dinner parties are for social climbing. Church-going is for networking. But there're also lots of things about Zenith that seem totally alien and they make reading Babbitt kind of like taking a cultural vacation. It's almost exotic to read about a time in America when premarital sex was taboo. When women were always "ladies" and, like Mrs. Babbitt, stayed home worrying about how many salted almonds to place before each dinner plate. Where your suburban neighbors drank like fish and smoked like chimneys and where it was a mark of achievement to belong to the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks, a lodge where men greet each other by yelling "How's the old Bolsheviki?"

Lewis wrote Babbitt as a searing social commentary. He wanted to skewer the Midwestern middle class just as Edith Wharton eviscerated the East Coast aristocracy, and yes, Babbitt is an effective satire about the conformity and boobishness of the businessmen of Zenith. Lewis' characters wallow in a type of boosterism which extends far beyond local commerce, a boosterism that drives everything from culture and politics to innermost thoughts of self and family.

No doubt, Babbitt's world is smug and insular, but that's what makes it such a perfect beach read. It's possible to become as absorbed in Babbitt's world as Babbitt himself was.


Ryssdal: Susan Lee lives in New York City.

We've also been asking you to send along some of your recommendations. Mohammad Asadullah from Atlanta, Georgia offered up Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson about his efforts to build schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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