My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

28 May 2005

Book Review – Class

Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System

I picked this book up on a whim while surfing through Amazon's temptations. Published in 1983, it claimed to be a witty, insightful book into the levels of class or status we have in America. So I read on, hoping to understand people just a little bit more. [Paul Fussell is the Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English Literature at University of Pennsylvania.]

First the disclaimers: Fussell is not a Christian and clearly doesn't operate from a Christian worldview; at a few points, he uses American Christianity as a sign of being terribly outdated. The book, now 20 years old, is in some ways outdated; in other ways, it's still right on the money. Finally, there is some crude language in the book.

Second, the highlights: this book was a treat. Maybe because I wasn't expecting too much...but I laughed out loud many times, mostly from seeing myself and others in a different light. This book will help those who want to know people better or just want to understand our society a little more.

Fussell's theory begins with 9 levels of class in America: Top out-of-sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High proletarian, Mid-proletarian, Low proletarian, Destitute, and Bottom out-of-sight. The first and last categories are ones that few of us will ever have any contact with: the super-rich and those poor or disabled enough to never interact with society. Where you fall in the rest of the scale depends on many factors.

What factors? How you look (upper-middles and prole's age differently), where you live (no one from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico will gain admittance to the country club), what kind of house you have (a mark of upper-middles is having many more guest rooms than you need), what type of clothes you wear (“legible clothing” is a definitive mark of prole status)...and so on. Fussell goes on to evaluate different parts of life in their different class mutations: language, appearance of the home, how we think. Throughout this whole section, light bulbs kept going off in my head - he described how different classes treat waitresses differently and I had an Aha! moment thinking about the different kinds of folks you see at a restaurant. Finally, he speaks of how one can move up or down a class; one reviewer wrote about the book “Anyone who reads it will automatically move up a class.”

Fussell doesn't write to elevate one class over others; although he often refers to “unforunate” places to live and how certain dress is “vulgar”, he does it sardonically. In the end, he wants us to open our eyes to who we are and how we live. There are different classes and those who recognize it are able to move about in this life and country with much more ease.

It would be a fun exercise for students of humanity to take the levels of society and think through how the gospel may be best communicated to each. Should you buy this book? Probably not – there are far more important books to buy. I'll loan you my copy; it'll make me look cultured.

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