Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

‘No one understands privilege as well as those who don’t have it.’

A review led me to this book, to wondering about ‘wanting’ and ‘owning’ and remembering life before it became complicated by owning (and then replacing) so many material possessions. Eula Biss writes that: ‘My adult life can be divided into two distinct parts, the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after’.

I can relate to that. The joy and privilege of owning ‘useful’ things, coupled with both a pride in maintaining them and the burden of ownership. Yes, it is a love/hate relationship at times a form of cognitive dissonance as convenience and burden jostle for importance.

Ms Biss explores what we own and why, and the underlying value system in play. Some of the questions that arose during my reading included: Do the things we own make us happier? Do they enable us to work harder, smarter or faster? Do we actually have more leisure to enjoy (as a consequence of our possessions) or do we simply acquire more possessions? And what do those possessions mean?

While Ms Biss’s American experience will resonate for many others outside the USA, within the USA at least some aspects will apply more to white middle-class people. Home ownership, for example, in particular areas.

Now that I am old, ownership is less about acquisition and more about maintenance. Some of my possessions bring me joy, others have become something of a burden. And yet I am grateful that I have been fortunate enough to acquire them. I have memories of wearing the ‘wrong’ (ie unfashionable) school shoes and not having the stuff the cool kids had.  I survived, and so did they.

I enjoyed this book, with its anecdotes from Ms Biss’s own experience and observation which started when she and her husband John bought a house in 2014. And once you buy a house, then you need to furnish it (to live in it) and maintain it (because it is also an asset). To buy a house, Ms Biss needs to work. Working means less time to write.  This experience made her uncomfortable, and her keeping a diary about this discomfort has led to this book. This book is a series of vignettes about Ms Biss’s work as a teacher and a writer and her role as a wife and mother. In short, her life viewed through the lens of capitalism.

Worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith