Babbitt in the 21st Century — Still relevant after all these years

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For a change of pace when I went on vacation earlier this summer, I decided to read a novel, not a magazine, not a white paper, not a business book — in fact, I wanted something that was not connected to work.

So I picked up Babbitt, written by Sinclair Lewis about 1920s suburban life. I actually like it (though I have not finished it yet; with three young children, it’s difficult to put together enough hours on vacation to read when there are things they want you to do. I did finish two other books I had started before picking up Babbitt).

A friend picked up my book, saw that its copyright date (1922), and asked if it could be relevant since it was written more than 80 years ago.

There are definitely things that are no longer relevant or appropriate, including having to buy bootleg liquor during prohibition (an example of the former) or racist or ethnic references (an example of the latter). The racist and ethnic slurs are unpleasant, but are far from a major theme (I think I counted three or four brief mentions). But this post is not about attitudes towards race or ethnicity of the early 1920s; those attitudes were clearly wrong and hurtful.

The point I do want to make is about what’s relevant: the attitude towards work. The scene I just read (from the middle of the book) is that everyone is rushing everywhere:

“Men were feverishly getting rid of visitors in offices adorned with the signs, ‘This Is My Busy Day’ and ‘The Lord Created the World in Six Days — You Can Spiel All You Got to Say in Six Minutes.’ Men who had made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year…Among them Babbitt hustled back to his office, to sit down with nothing much to do except see that the staff looked as though they were hustling.”

Those were pre-Internet, Web 2.0 days, by the way.

Well, back to work. This is my busy day!

Actually, here’s another section I liked, describing a real estate convention that Babbitt attends:

The meetings of the convention were held in the ballroom of the Allen House. In an anteroom was the office of the chairman of the executive committee. He was the busiest man in the convention; he was so busy that he got nothing done whatever. He sat at a marquetry table, in a room littered with crumpled paper and, all day long, town-boosters and lobbyists and orators who wished to lead debates came and whispered to him, whereupon he looked vague, and said rapidly, ‘Yes, yes, that’s a fine idea; we’ll do that,’ and instantly forgot all about it…”

That type still exists!

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