It’s easy to look askance at the hordes of Barbie dolls and Beanie Babies overrunning other people’s houses, so the wave of horror that greeted “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” a recent anthropological study of 32 middle-class American families and their obscene quantities of stuff, was predictable. Published in coffee-table book form and illustrated with gorgeous pictures of freezers packed with prefab food and avalanches of clothes and swaying towers of molded plastic in bright primary colors, the book elicits sympathetic revulsion.
“Look at how these people live,” you say to yourself as you leaf through the pages, perhaps realizing that, if the study’s photographer set up at just the right angle in your home, he could find scenes comparable to those in the book. You can distance yourself from this response by reminding yourself that the participating families all lived in one region, Southern California; that things would look different if the sample were more diverse; that 32 isn’t a statistically significant number of households. All true, but the deeper truth of the book still comes through: Americans have too much stuff, and it clutters up not only their homes but their lives, their time, their consciousness.