"My adult life can be divided into two distinct parts," Eula Biss writes, "the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after." Having just purchased her first home, she now embarks on a roguish and risky self-audit of the value system she has bought into. The result is a radical interrogation of work, leisure, and capitalism. Described by TheNew York Times as a writer who "advances from all sides, like a chess player," Biss brings her approach to the lived experience of capitalism. Ranging from IKEA to Beyoncé to Pokemon, across bars and laundromats and universities, she asks, of both herself and her class, "In what have we invested?"
Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University, where she teaches nonfiction writing, and she is a founding editor of Essay Press, a new press dedicated to innovative nonfiction. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Columbia, Ninth Letter, The North American Review, The Bellingham Review, the Seneca Review, and Harper’s.
If you are currently skimming the reviews to determine whether to read; I have a review for you. I really did not know what to think about this book. I was equally hesitant and enthusiastic, and the reviews definitely seemed mixed, while the press and publisher information seemed encouraging. I remain somewhere in the middle.
Reviews posted previously seem to say this book just doesn't read the room, or has a general air of ignorance or privilege; and I agree--to a certain extent, where I still think this book is helpful and necessary (not that it needs to be--Biss could certainly write this book for no reason, if only personal fulfillment. This is also coincidentally a subject covered in the book). I think the readers who will gain the most from this book are those similar to Biss, who are white, American, upper 'middle' class, and generally consider moments of discomfort (if at all) in identification of their class or privilege as affronts to their identity. In a way, this book is like Marx & Engels for people--namely, Americans--who are still entrenched in the legacy of McCarthyism and the red scare, of a culture dependent on pure capitalism and its effects, yet understandably might be ignorant of how capitalism itself works and want to learn without feeling accosted. It's a great primer to theory, without necessarily being an enigmatic and philosophical text. If you've taken philosophy courses in college past the 101 level, you might find this book somewhat redundant in that regard. But--it isn't simply a book to explain theory, but moreso a memoir in a way; a collection of essays over time.
I think one of the most important aspects of the book (but not necessarily why I liked it) was Biss' own growth and development in her self-awareness in the context of capitalism and society. I sincerely rolled my eyes at the beginning of the book; Biss' ignorance seemed feigned and impossible, and it was frustrating to read how an upper 'middle' class white woman (very much the woman who I, as a child in a suburban rich southern city, witnessed in my neighborhoods, school PTAs, and parents peer groups) was navigating the world with such disconnect. To her credit, she had already identified each of the second-hand-embarrassment moments I would have from my perspective as a reader; each parable she gave from her own life represented a moment of discomfort for her, in understanding her privilege, lack thereof, or dynamic relationship there between. By the end of the book, after what seemed like a relatively long period of her self-education in reading and re-reading texts new and from college study, or talking to economists and experts, or considering others situations, I found that I heartily agreed with, especially with her remarks on transit and the individualistic mindset of drivers as opposed to bicyclists (or by my own personal extension, pedestrians), nationalism vs citizenship vs belonging, and other things.
Despite my frustrations at the beginning of the book, even I, who definitely grew up in some semblance of an upper (what my parents would call 'upper middle' if generous; they firmly believed they were working class) class family and community, but am now thoroughly in a lower middle, precariat class, relate to her experience in contextualizing capitalism through having to research it instead of live it. As an institutionally trained musician, I understand her explanation of being a class traitor as a writer or participant in the arts (although I feel like its particular experience in French romantic 'Bohemian' life was not as fleshed out as it could have been; but this isn't a research book, it's one of parables and anecdotes). Her slow coming to realization, and development of a more nuanced and observant position, is realistic if anything.
I initially heard about Having and Being Had in Eula Biss' NPR interview, which made me want to read because she seemed so honest and true to her principles; of holding herself to being uncomfortable, forthwith, even when she didn't want to be. I'm glad I took the time to pick it up, savor it, and see so many concepts relevant to my experience as an individual in a capitalist society explored. Hardcover read at my place of work, Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Florida. Find it on bookshop here
This book is only useful for people who have an income of six figures USD or a networth of that much. This book is the ruminations of a wealthy, White woman reckoning with her status in the wake of purchasing a home.
Many parts of this book disgusted and offended me personally. I saw no value in her observations, and I see no value in observations that lack rigor and critical analysis.
This is a meditation on money unlike anything I've ever read. One could make a strong argument that books like this--short, ruminative essays melding personal reflection, pop culture, history, literature--have been written about race and gender, but I've never seen an exploration of capitalism like Biss's.
One essay begins, "David and I are talking about Barbie, Nazis, and Emily Dickinson," and that single line perfectly captures this book in its entirety. Biss treats Scooby Doo, Marx, her neighbors, Beyonce, and Virginia Woolf as equally worthy of intellectual study. That study produces little snippets of literary criticism, snapshots of the world through a Marxist critical lens.
These are probably essays in their truest definition: "to try." Biss tries to wrap her head around capitalism, puzzling together others' definitions, attempting to find capitalism's tracks in our society, and trying to make sense of how she is complicit in it all. Biss herself tries to identify the genre of her writing and suggests it may be "'an experiment in self-dismantling.'"
My biggest reservation about this book is the length of the essays. In Biss's past essay collections, part of the magic is that she weaves threads until they assemble before your eyes, delivering you to an insight you didn't see coming. This book was just fragmented pieces without the magical weaving. Certainly it was an intentional decision, but to me, it felt lacking and incomplete. From the notes at the end (which were well-documented, quite interesting, and absolutely necessary to understand the book), it's clear every aspect of the book was thought out, that the brevity was intentional. I personally just didn't find it effective.
At the end of the day, Biss is someone I want to be friends with because her line of thinking is so interesting to me. I want to see more of the world through her eyes.
As a set of essays, this work should be judged on the questions it raises and not necessarily on what settles. Biss, however, rarely raises any questions of her own as she endlessly quotes from the first chapter of a whole host of works. There are few critical takes, and there isn’t any action taken that would somehow address the discomfort this white woman feels with using her money to make more money.
I enjoyed parts of it, but overall this book lacked a sense of vulnerability and stakes for me; I felt vaguely distrustful of Biss's lukewarm attempts to complicate her class discomfort and privilege. She quotes from a whole wealth of scholarly works on wealth, capitalism, and economics but seems to flit lightly on their surfaces. I found the accumulation of "researched" material, like the accumulation of wealth, actually brings Biss farther away from the lived experiences of poverty, discomfort, class, and inequality. As another reviewer here puts it: "Biss rarely raises any questions of her own as she endlessly quotes from the first chapter of a whole host of works. There are few critical takes, and there isn’t any action taken that would somehow address the discomfort this white woman feels with using her money to make more money."
Interestingly, the notes section at the back actually injects a lot of life and awareness into the book while contextualizing why much of it feels constrained. I wish Biss had worked in this self-referential material, the way Maggie Nelson tends to do so well. The act of writing the book, and everything that means and adds to the subject at hand, becomes the material of the book as well. It's not the way all writers work, but I guess it's like - include this meta element all the way or don't, but don't relegate most of it to a big chunk at the end and simply call it Notes. As Biss says in the note "On the Genre," she found herself wondering if she was writing a collection of poems, an essay in episodes, a series of jokes at her own expense, a high stakes game, a midlife crisis, or an internal audit. I wish the book felt as many-kinded and expansive as Biss imagines it could be.
a meditation on money (class status/capitalism/labor) that errs on the side of minimalism, almost to the point of dullness. i really enjoyed all that nonfiction material the eula biss brought into this project (+ the rules she established for herself when she began undertaking this project) and how those materials deepened her understanding of herself, but i struggled to find anything new or groundbreaking in this as a body of work. barely above average for me.
I am surprised this book has such a high rating. Although I really wanted to enjoy, appreciate, and learn from it, I found it more like someone's diary filled with antidotal topics written on a whim. A privileged white woman who is trying not to be, to the point of whining about it. (I am also a white woman.) I am disappointed that I spent money on this book.
set of personal & literary vignettes about capitalism & the way it permeates every part of our lives. the bibliography is an amazing resource & the shout outs to Karl Marx, David Graeber, Emily Dickinson, & Virginia Woolf are well placed. i loved her ability to weave each throughout her essays in this effortless way while simultaneously addressing consumerism & class. i'm not even going to try to convey how good her writing is because that would be impossible.
The book description may help you decide whether this book is for you. The authors adult life is divided into two parts. The time before she owned a washing machine and the time after. Hmmm, clever. Eula Biss is a talented writer and in the past I have enjoyed her essays. There are a few gems in this collection but it reads like a conversation with fellow academics about the woes of privilege in today's capitalistic culture. It felt a little tone deaf.
Genuinely thought I’d got the wrong book at first, but this book is basically just a wealthy white liberal woman explaining racism through the lens of what she owns. There is truly no group that Eula doesn’t think she is better than- rich white people and poor black people (the only two groups she seems to think exist) alike.
Biss contemplates the cognitive dissonance inherent in hating capitalism and yet being beholden to and participating in it. The writing here is quintessential Biss: anecdotal, pulled-from-her-own-day-to-day-life snippets, mixed with choice excerpts from books she’s reading on the topic, mixed with overheard conversations, mixed with news items, etc. A big, unwieldy subject made accessible.
I only caught the very tail end of a radio segment about this book: not much more than something like, and this is approximate because I was driving at the time "So what is capitalism?" "That's a great question and a hard one to answer, but [someone] called it 'A system for turning money into more money.'" "That was Eula Biss, her new book is Having and Being Had" And I wanted to read it, because I am very discontent with capitalism as it is currently functioning in the US, ie., the least good for the most people.
What I was expecting was probably something more in the usual non-fiction line for social issues with details on just how great the gap between wealth and poverty has widened, maybe comparison to the Gilded Age and/or comparison with other developed nations. This is not like that. It is less about the current state of capitalism in the US and much more some real reflection on what money means to this one specific person in the US right now.
There aren't issues to have opinions on, there's this is what her income means to her, and her personal relationship with money over time, and where reading this book took her next, and here is a work of art that explores this concept, and so on.
So yeah, just really interesting reflections on money by one well-read person, arranged in a way to provide structure to some random inputs. I'll be reading more of her books, out of respect for the seriousness with which she reflects on what she has read and learned. Fascinating to see how someone else thinks. And a little meditative.
I’ve enjoyed other works by Eula Biss, but just could not figure out what this collection was trying to be. It was billed as a contemplation on living in a capitalist world, but instead read like the journal of a relatively privileged white woman who feels torn between her upbringing and the intellectually elite circles she now finds herself within. And the writing! I love a good vignette, but this was extremely fragmented. The relationships between the pieces were often under-realized— a pet peeve of mine. I find it infinitely frustrating when writers rely on a scarcity of words to create some sort of “literary sensibility.” Removing any sort of connective tissue in your essays does not immediately elevate the writing.
Maybe the collection would have come together in the end, but by the time I stopped she had neither given us the searing takedown of a consumerist society, nor had she told us enough about her life to make me actually care about her. Either way, I wasn’t interested in continuing.
A talented writer with an insightful eye on historical literature. I read her “Immunity” book two years prior and enjoyed her conservational wit and self-deciphering prose.
This book was also a fun read but by moving more into political theory and economic theory her nativity comes across as swallow. She uses feudalism or gift economy to describe alternatives to our current consumption capitalism with etymological descents into words like precarity, property and modes of production. But her cursory explanation of Marxism, and the Diggers are more literature focused then systems focused.
The book is also auto-biographical with a revealing telling of her financial pasts and present situations but it does not probe deep enough into the stings and arrows of why the world has so many problems she explores older books on affluence but doesn’t talk about inequality.
Interesting and engaging exploration of Biss's relationship to capitalism and its many incarnations: money, possessions, class, leisure, value, art, investment, and work. It cycles, in short chapters, from personal reflections to broader inquiries through other writings and literature. It's a neat approach, and while her experience might not be yours—though it's very much like mine in a lot of ways, which made the book particularly relevant for me—there's enough of a wide-angle take that stays rooted in lived life, pop culture, and what it is to be an adult in a world where you're expected to know the worth of things, but need to figure out how to assess that as you go. Good stuff.
A book about "life under late capitalism" that uses actual numbers and concrete details to describe the author's financial position ... !
Fragment-y meditations on how it feels to buy a house, credit, the economy of Pokemon cards among first graders, what capitalism is (Biss asks many of her friends for their definition and relates their answers herein; a fun motif), what luxury is, precarity, and how art fits into all of it (or doesn't, as the case may be).
I get the sense that this book could be frustrating for someone who is really well-versed in left economic thought. There are many sort of superficial references to David Graeber, Marx, Erik Olin Wright, etc. For me, it was a useful accounting of Biss applying these ideas but she didn’t go very deep on the ideas themselves. In other words, the theoretical engagement is a bit light but the practical engagement is solid.
I just flipped through the book and found an underline or highlight on practically every other page, but none of them really stand alone. Maybe that's a good thing; the book builds its own energy and really isn't aphoristic or self-help-y or super pithy or any of the other things that sometimes result in quotes for the archives.
That being said, here is one quote for the archives on the internal dissonance between biking and driving a car:
"On a bicycle, I'm alert, aware of everything. It's exhilarating, the narrow margin, the exposure to injury, the steadying force of the spinning wheels. And then, for the sake of comfort or convenience, I get into a car. The sound of the street is dulled. I sit back and turn on the radio. I become distracted. Speed is easy, unearned, and bicycles are now an annoyance. I forget who I was just moments ago."
Okay one more - about what's at stake when you're on a bike versus in a car:
"My foot is stretched out in front of me. bleeding because of a fall from my bicycle. This fall was entirely my fault -- I ran straight into a post after having too much to drink. There was no traffic, no car to blame. But if I had been in a car I would have hurt the post, rather than myself." (skin in the game vibes)
There is probably nothing groundbreaking about a middle-class/wealthyish white woman exploring capitalism through the lens of her own class anxiety. Still, this book does what it does pretty well. Biss is a good writer, asks interesting questions, and, when she leaves a question open early in the book, generally manages to circle back around to it, so it doesn't leave you hanging in the way that bugged me in Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road.
there are so many contradictions in the way that the world is presented and narrated to us, as well as in our own perception of it, our lives, and ourselves. Biss makes sure that she remains self-conscious about every move she makes. a brilliant сombination of academic research and personal writing.
"What is destroyed when we think of ourselves as consumers . . . is the possibility that we might be doing something productive outside of work" (27).
"Many jobs demand both work and labor . . . The labor of teaching, which I love for its transformative power, is accompanied by ordinary paperwork and the work of being an employee, which is more toilsome than the work of teaching. Bureaucracies have a way of making work out of labor and . . . a teacher can be robbed of her labor and left with mostly work" (101).
"Maybe from inside capitalism . . . every other system looks impossible and nostalgic, and every other way of life is hard to believe" (267).
"Speaking of privilege . . . it is a privilege to spend your life writing. Not a luxury, but a privilege" (271).
Eula Biss remains one of my favorite writers of CNF, and as I prepare to write in the genre, I have questions about HAVING AND BEING HAD. I want to talk about its politics and the voice in which they're articulated. About the collage-like format, where I felt like the most insightful moments came from writers other than the author. About how to wrestle from a place of privilege without merely wringing one's delicate hands, however calloused by yard work.
Is totally humbling yourself, purporting to have no answers, or only very hesitant ones, the genre's preferred affect or aesthetic? Because being avowedly left is too on-the-nose? How to have a clear analysis without making bad art? With the time and privilege to write a book about middle class life under capitalism, how is there no mention of, or attempt at, redistribution? Or solidarity?
Earlier in our marriage, when my husband and I were renting an apartment, we noted the absurdity of homeownership and contemplated being life-long renters. Our thought process was that homeownership demands consumption, so that just as you have equity in your home you also lose financial freedom to spend elsewhere. Fast forward a few years and we are -surprise- homeowners, simultaneously in love with a space to call our own while watching most of our income go into paying for and maintaining it. I love my home but I also understand that on some level it is, to paraphrase the writer, "a $400,000 container for my washing machine." Eula Biss explores that tension in this riveting, deeply researched and beautifully written essay collection. She examines the relationship between homeownership, work, investment, and consumption in our late-capitalist society. I was left pondering how we decide what has value. Highly highly recommend this one!
It's amazing how somebody so well-read can constantly miss the point of all the critical theory she's quoting. This could have been a wonderful series of essays; the writing is simple and easily digestible, and the author relates macro economics to daily life. But she's too white and too wealthy, too aware of her own discomfort in this capitalist hellscape yet too unwilling to actually step out of her comfort zone and understand experiences of people different from hers. Every time she seemed like she was on the verge of an insight, the essay would end, and the next one returns to ground zero, with her wielding all the power of cisheterosexual middle-class white womanhood. She likes to defend herself by saying that her husband grew up poor, and that she understands she's part of the problem, but I don't think she's actually internalized any of it -- it's just a flimsy defense mechanism against potential criticism.
TLDR; The entire book feels like an exercise in self-congratulating cishet middle-class white womanhood. I wish this had been written by a more intelligent woman of color instead.
Not sure who would benefit from a rich white american woman's musings on late capitalism of which she contributes to and participates in except... well.... other rich white american people BUT,,, this was still personally an insightful read in the way me, a not-rich, not-white, not-american person was privy to the inner workings of such a person's mind? Like this book didn't piss me off as I expected it would, the simple but concise prose being a factor of that... and just... being in the author's head as she muses the contradictions and cognitive dissonances she herself experiences trying to unpack capitalism but while being tethered to it? All in all, even in the Author's Notes itself the author states she acknowledges that this book is full of white people and white people's ephemera, and how of course there are limitations to a book investigating american capitalism with such a narrow sample pool. So honestly, this book did what the author wanted it to do, is exactly what the author intended it to be, and I can't get mad at or fault anybody for that. 3 stars.
I have a feeling Eula Biss believes in the abolition of work. This is a redeeming quality of the book, as the arc of the argument gestures to that conclusion. Stylistically, it's similar to other of Biss' work--she reads peripatetically, and she reflects. It's kind of soothing, and it's a pleasure to watch another person's mind at work, as it usually is. Still, there's something mildly dissatisfying and passive about Biss' own composure at the end of the text--there is no call to action, no tangible gesture from Biss that her own actions toward and against capitalism have shifted.
SUPER interesting. I realized how good this book is after I finished and I drove to get groceries; I was horrified by every billboard and every product and every desire of mine to buy something. All of Biss' ideas were just factual enough and just poetic enough to make reading enjoyable, despite the fact that it makes you hate capitalism.
Really interesting book. Part memoir, part essays discussing life and affluence and capitalism. Thought provoking, and I enjoyed it overall, though I don't know that there was so much a central thesis. Mostly just ruminations, which worked for me but I can see how it wouldn't for everybody.
This book was the second time in a month that I have greatly enjoyed being in an American woman’s head (the first being Vivian Gornick’s). The personal essay is not a favorite genre of mine, but I loved Biss’s short, connected essays (one of the many things I like are the titles that pick up the last word or sentence of the prior essay). Biss did a great job dealing with consumption and capitalism in a way that was personal, yet thoughtful and, for the most part, fresh. Ditto for art. I also liked the way she shares the words of other writers and her friends, fitting them perfectly into the short essays.