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on February 16, 2014
I LOVE this book!!! I feel like my eyes have been opened to so many things. This book was written 30 years ago. EVERY SINGLE THING IS STILL TRUE. I live in Los Angeles, I see EVERYTHING from bottom out of sight to the occasional top out of sight and a ton of class X. Every frickin' thing is still true (yes, yes, I know what Fussell would say about the word 'frickin'). All these individual and social nuances are still alive right down to the ugliest bone! What he says about universities, clothing, egos, professions, EVERYTHING.

However, I wasn't expecting this book to be so FUNNY. I thought it would be dry. Fussell has THE BEST EYE for looking into people compared to any socialist or theoretical genius I've read. I was rollin' laughing at some of cracks he took at certain classes, and then said "Hey, now wait a minute!" When he got to mine. Everyone gets burned though. Mainly the middles though, for our pretentiousness. Which is funny because if the majority of middles really knew how the out of sights operate they 1.) wouldn't waste so much money on flossy stuff. and 2.) Wouldn't be nearly as assumptiously rude to the "lower crust"/bottom out of sights. It's interesting that the tops and bottom of the class system have so much in common. OBVIOUSLY there are a lot of critical factors that differentiate each class, but not always what you think. Inherited money and immediate access to other uppers and out of sights and therefore elite culture and opportunities makes A HUGE difference. The middle class needs to stop trying to keep up and kicking themselves when we fail.
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on October 30, 1999
But Seriously... While the social landscape will probably be much more familiar to a person who lives/has lived in the North East, Fussell's description of 'Class' in America is uncannily accurate. The title being 'shorthand,' really, for the 'cultural castes' in America that do not necessarily correlate to one's income and wealth, Fussell's book is genuinely far more than mere pop-sociology. Rather, in one short book, Fussell delineates with near-perfection every major convention and code of conformity in American life. It is no exaggeration to say: 'this book will set you free,' for if you have the courage to recognize yourself within its pages - and, believe me; rich, poor, middle-class, we're all in there - besides an extremely entertaining read, you will come away with both a genuine distaste for conformity - however it should manifest itself - as well as the instinct to think for yourself.
As for 'X-people'; well, that I believe is simply Fussell coining a new term for bohemians, and here lies the only criticism I would make of the book: in his description of 'X-people' Fussell may well be guilty of laying down a new code of conformity of his own.
We've all taken on an affectation of some sort in our lives, we've all felt insecure, we're all products of our background in many ways: admit it, be at ease with it, then get in the habit of 'living what you like.' To be free both of the 'tyranny' of one's own particular social paradigm, as well as the burdensome care of what unfortunate individuals - still constricted by their own ingrained ideas of what is 'proper' - may think of you, presents you with a world suddenly free of illusory, popularly prescribed limitations. Realize that conformity to any counter-culture is still conformity, avoid the pitfall of self-congratulation - shall we call this an 'ugly-duckling syndrome?' - and the world is at your feet!
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VINE VOICEon January 30, 2005
It can hardly be denied that there are huge differences among people in the US concerning wealth, income, power, employment, education, attractiveness, and ancestry. And then there are differences concerning where one lives, habits, tastes, dress, speech, recreation, beliefs, etc. The author contends that these differences work to segment American society into identifiable classes, ranging from upper classes, a middle-class, and several layers of proletariat or lower classes. American is not the classless society that our myths suggest.

There is a real basis for being pegged at a certain level of class. One does not simply self-select class level; inter-class change is difficult and fairly rare. The hardball nature of class divisions is readily seen in the economic power asserted by the upper classes in employing or managing the lesser classes that preserves extant class distinctions. The middle-class, perhaps the largest of the classes, suffers, by far, the most anxiety from their class standing, in terms of both preserving their standing and adopting behaviors that emulate the upper middle-class, which hopefully will permit some degree of entry. The critique of the middle-class is often devastating as the author notes purchasing decisions, educational choices, and speech patterns, etc, designed to enhance status that invariably fall flat, even looking ludicrous at times. The lower classes are no less ridiculed, but they are more comfortable with their culture. Ironically, they often have more economic independence than does the middle-class.

To demonstrate the disconnect across classes, the author presents the scenario where a middle-class person congratulates a college professor on being a "famous educator." The fact that a professor considers himself an intellectual and not an employee, as educators most certainly are, never enters the mind of the person attempting to bestow praise. The professor is offended, not honored by the comparison. That is one small example of the cultural class-divides of which the author speaks.

The author suggests that the society is generally becoming more proletarianized, as mass culture is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Though written over twenty years ago, perhaps the term Wal-martized is what the author is after. The ramifications of that are unclear.

The author backtracks from his placement of everyone in a class by suggesting that "category X" people have come to the fore that resist categorization into the class framework. They are generally urban, independent, self-assertive, often self-employed, well-read, dismissive of popular culture, and free of status anxiety. They are remindful of the "cultural creatives," a group detected in recent years by some sociologists. It may be debatable as to whether "X" people deserve special consideration. After all, all class members partake and reject parts of the broader culture, exhibiting some "X" characteristics. Furthermore, power realities do not just disappear. An "X" writer must still deal with powerful corporations that are not reluctant to assert class power.

The basic message of the book is not diminished despite its publication over twenty years ago and the change of some minor cultural details. Recent developments, such as the ubiquity of cell-phones and CD/DVD players and the rise of the hip-hop/rap culture, would hardly undermine the author's ideas; in fact, they would corroborate them. The reality and confusion of class are easily seen in the presidential election of 2004. A class (the lower classes) was organized (propagandized) to reject the candidate of part of the upper middle class (liberal elites) based on so-called elitist cultural habits. The full dimension of that class divide was carefully not discussed; it should have been. And that is a weakness of the book: the politics of class is not discussed.
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on December 27, 2011
This book is easily one of my 10 favorite books of all time. It's witty, acerbic, sarcastic, patronizing at times, but ultimately, one of the most "real" and completely accurate dissertations on modern US social life to come along.

Contrary to the criticisms that he dumps on lower class people ("proles"), Paul Fussell is an equal opportunity offender in running the social, consumer and cognitive tendencies of every social tier through a fine sieve. Example: he points out that the ultra rich "top out of sight" and bottom of the social ladder "bottom out of sight" (IE, the homeless) both carry no cash on them, both often drive beater cars, both have anonymous street locations, etc.

Fussell points out the extremely high correlation between prole and lower middle class aspirations and blingy consumer culture. This stuff has aged mastefully! Look at the sloppy flip flop wearing or barefoot, sweatshirt wearing proles waddling through your local Wal-Mart, with complex smart phones in their hands as they text their friends. The lower classes embrace complex technology and are now as geek as any programmer used to be.

This leads to an interesting point. One thing that Fussell did not predict in "Class" is how explicit the class lines would become in US society in our time. Look at Obama's faux paux during campaigning of criticizing middle Americans "clinging to their guns and religion." And also he did not predict how people would start to clump deliberately to either the middle class or the "street/urban" prole poles. IE, you have white teenagers in many areas of the US that embrace thug/ghetto culture, write and talk "black" and deliberately crap up their spoken and written grammar with replacements like "dat" for that.

Class in the US is dynamic. New subclasses have been added to our class system, such as the hipster - I think this might be somewhat like Fussell's Class X, but hipsters are too unaware of the cliche factor of their own subculture and they form a class that effectively mocks other classes but which is unaware of its own rigid "codes of conduct". Also, I believe that average Americans are more aware of the class signatures of lifestyles today than when the book was written, through TV and films that emphasize small details of peoples' lives.

I heartily second the reviewer on this site who said that Fussell did indeed provide a way out of being stereotyped heavily by the class system, and it is to become what he calls "Class X" and become deliberate about your lifestyle and consumption choices. That's the bottom line: you have to THINK about your choices if you don't want to be pulled along on class specific currents of behavior and thinking. I suspect that deep class indoctrination is a function also of intelligence and self esteem. The smarter and more aware you are, the more likely that you can break the mold. If you can't cope with the information that you are a member of a class, you have deeper problems than class.

The bottom lines of this book are: we are ALL members of well defined classes; we ALL are enabled and limited by thinking that is particular to the class of our upbringing; most US residents, particularly proles and the middle classes, are in extreme denial about the hard cold reality of US class structure - to the extent that they are angered by its description (see the one star reviews for a clear indication of this); and only working on yourself can "remedy" your indoctrination into your class and can help open your eyes.

The book isn't mean spirited at all. Fussell was having fun with our implementation of the concept of class. Why else would he have art in the book like a Prole coat of arms that shows a lawnmower and a Budweiser in quadrants of the shield? :)
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on December 2, 2013
I'd read Paul Fussell's BAD a number of years ago, and I remember it fondly for its dead-on insights and off-the-charts snarkiness. So I picked up CLASS, and I'm glad I did.

Anyone who is looking for an exhaustive, research-based examination of social class in the United States is going to be disappointed, because the book (while peppered with the occasional academic reference) is based primarily on Fussell's observations. And very valid those observations are, even though some of them are outdated (the book was originally published in the early 1980s).

I can't tell you how many times I nodded my head in agreement as Fussell put his finger so precisely on the what distinguishes the upper class from the upper-middle class, the middle class, and the working class, which Fussell lumps into the category of "proles." Each and every group comes in for its share of criticism, except the real down-and-outs; surely Fussell realized that those people have it hard enough and don't need to see their foibles further exposed.

You will no doubt be interested to learn that a middle class person says "Nice to meet you," while an upper-class person says "How do you do?" - that you shouldn't compliment the home of an upper-class person, because that person operates on the assumption that his or her home IS wonderful and that fact is obvious to all - that the upper class doesn't dye their hair - and, perhaps most tellingly, anyone whose rear-end juts out cannot be upper class.

The book's most obvious flaw is that it mixes what I see as valid, academic observations about the tastes and habits of the socioeconomic classes with satirical criticisms of tiny details that aren't so much class markers as they are vast generalizations. But I enjoyed reading this book so much that I was able to overlook the most glaring of these. A Fussell book wouldn't BE a Fussell book if Fussell wasn't putting himself into it.

I also think that CLASS exhibits Fussell's epic snobbery, which is always amusing but sometime wince-inducing, especially when he talks about the "prole" classes. I saw almost no acknowledgment of the important and valuable roles that the working class fill in this country (and in the world); it would be nice if Fussell could have taken his nose out of the air long enough to admit that we NEED tradesman and craftsman, and that the money-spending classes certainly need waiters, waitresses, and bartenders to wait on them. Fussell also subscribes to academic snobbery of the highest order: According to his world view, there's the Ivies, and then there's everywhere else. Fussell comes right out and says that many non-Ivies don't even have a right to call themselves colleges/universities, and that the professors who teach have no right to call themselves scholars. Sorry, Paul - Everybody knows that the Ivies exist for no other reason than to perpetuate the class system. CLASS would have been a better, more honest book if Fussell had been able to explore this issue with his usual penetrating intellect. But we all have blind spots, I suppose.

None of this prevented me from enjoying and recommending the book. CLASS does what I like in nonfiction: It keeps me interested, it doesn't overstay its welcome (about 200 pages), it makes me think, and it engages me with its language. Fussell's gift is writing in an erudite, self-confident way without burdening his prose with useless polysyllabic words, opaque academic discourse, and self-congratulation (though, admittedly, there is a bit of that last category). Read it, enjoy, and take the living room quiz. It certainly pegged my class accurately.
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on August 15, 2009
This book from 1983 was probably right-on at the time it was published. It does a very good job of explaining American class distinctions in today's world as well. Yet for me, reading the book in 2009 was more an entertainment than an educational experience. This book reminded me of what things were like in the 80's -- I do remember lampshades encased in cellophane, French-looking telephones with gold-plated receivers, plaster geese sporting neckerchiefs on front porches. Once I failed to adequately praise a fellow's necktie; he flipped it over to reveal the Christian Dior tag; I told him he should wear it wrong-side-out! Ahhh... the 80's!

People-watching is great fun.

I would LOVE to see an updated version of this book! Talk about women in tight Barbie-pink sweatpants with "Sassy!" emblazoned across their rear ends who chat profanely on cell phones while waiting in checkout lines. Write about the proliferation of home air fresheners, scented candles, and Lampes Bergere. How useless stuff from China (magnetic acrylic photo frames, John Deere wall clocks, tote bags, color-changing solar lights) has destroyed American manufacturing and led to massive trade deficits. Also: the more menial the job, the more likely the jobholder has a fancy hairdo, the less likely s/he has health insurance. I guess I want a heavier perspective, one that goes more into societal ills. And maybe offers solutions.
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VINE VOICEon September 7, 2003
Author Paul Fussell swings from contempt to sympathy as he observes the behavior of different classes. He writes with a distinctive style as he takes a mostly subjective witty look at what makes a person part of a certain class. One complaint I have is that he does not tell us how he came by his information about different classes. Did he go visit people of different classes for several days and find out about them? Most of the time people stay in their own class and that is the only class they really know without stereotyping. That's why I just view this book as merely his opinion of what sets off one class from another.
A reader can read this book and figure out what class he is in. Maybe you will see yourself all over the map as far as class goes, such as having mostly middle class tendencies with a little redneck sneaking out from time to time. I suppose I'm either high prole or middle class with some bohemian pretensions. I fell between the cracks--too educated to be high prole but not professional enough to be middle class.
Some things Fussell mentions seem petty as as a class marker. Who really cares what kind of ice cream a person buys as far as a class marker? Some things I wouldn't have guessed about the upper classes such as the point he makes about not praising their furniture or food because it should already be assumed that is the best of the best.
Fussell doesn't like the middle classes because they are insecure euphemizing fakes that try to act like they are classier than they really are and they keep pronouncing foreign words wrong, but use them anyway.
Fussell is also worried about "prole drift" in which everything in society begins to gravitate towards the tastes of the proles, mentioning the problem of ugly, functional-looking architecture that surrounds us.
Fussell mentions a class called "X" which is somewhat similar to bohemians. I think he thinks he is a part of this class and he likes this class because it is the category for people who are trying to escape the class jail. I thought it was a glorified description since escaping a class may just be an illusion and I think bohemians live on its margins of society as social outcasts. Bohos are often so idiosyncratic that can't get along with others in their category--so it's a lonely life.
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on December 23, 2005
After having read this book, I look at people differently when I go out. Whether consciously or not, it's hard to avoid placing them in some level of social class once you've absorbed Fussell's words. When a book has this kind of significant and lasting influence on me, I almost always give 5 stars. It's not only entertaining, but it may also change you. The book is candid--a comment somewhere said it's like a drunk sociologist opening up for a few hours and telling you the real deal about class in America; I agree. Some people think the concept of class has faded with time in America. Sure, we don't live in a society with nobles and feudalism, but you will see in this book that class is alive and well. And it's not just that the author says so, it's that everything is backed up with examples that will ring true to you. In the examples he describes and the pictures he illustrates, people you know (or don't know but have seen) will come to mind throughout the book. It's like a funny comedian who hits close to home because you know everything he says really applies.

Speaking of comedy, the pictures were really funny in this book. They were meant to illustrate points, and they did so wonderfully, but they also provided laughs without fail. The book's only flaw stems from the time factor--it's from 1983, and a few things have changed since then.

Many reviewers and readers I know seem to clamor for a follow up to this book, and I agree wholeheartedly. The author is still alive and teaching in the same university I believe, UPenn. It would be really interesting to see what has changed and what has remained the same since its original publication. In spite of its age, I think the book has stood the test of (intermediate) time well--you will hardly notice that it is from 20 years ago. Just don't go into it expecting commentary about computers or the internet, as that's just about the only revolution that has occurred since then, along with CDs and other know, technology in general. No plasma screen TVs. You get the idea. Anyway it's an excellent book, I recommend it to everyone I know and they too find it informative. It may make you more judgmental, but in a discerning way. Just try not to let it make you condescending, assuming you're from one of the upper levels of classes which you probably are if you're reading this review. This book has really ignited an interest in social class in me. Class is something that's easy to overlook, or to have a vague idea of but never able to put into words. This book will put it into words for you and you may never forget. If you're an aspiring social climber, I would have to give this book must-read status.
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on September 29, 2002
This is a very witty, amusing and irreverent look at the supposedly nonexistant American class system. It's clear that Paul Fussell does not have a very high regard for any class, with the exception of the one he calls Class X --those people who don't fit stereotypes. Fussell identifies nine major classes, from top out-of-sight all the way down to bottom out-of sight, while focusing mainly on those in between. No detail escapes Fussell's critical eye. Proles, for example, tend to be overweight, wear baseball caps (often backwards) and ornament their cars with things like dice hanging from the front mirror; the middle class speak in pretentious euphemisms ("cocktails" instead of drinks, "position" for job), are preoccupied with lawns and like to join clubs. The only thing that detracts from this book, first published in 1983, is that some of the material is dated. For example, the prole habit of dressing up for travel is almost obsolete in today's almost universally casual world. In fact, many of the bohemian traits he ascribes to Class X (such as wearing clothes from LL Bean) have, over the last two decades, been appropriated by other, more conventional classes. It is interesting to note that the popular term Generation X (coined by Douglas Coupland in the novel by the same name) was inspired by Fussell's book, although the meaning was changed. There are still many valid insights here, and the book is a genuine pleasure to read. As a follow-up, readers may enjoy another of Fussell's books, even more elitist and misanthropic than Class, called Bad.
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on May 30, 2002
I first read Paul Fussell's Class in the early 90s and reread it recently. I find it to be an entertaining examination of the class system in America. Fussell works from the premise that the egalitarian ideal of a classless society is a myth. Further, class is not purely conveyed by money and power because status is a function of your upbringing and environment. You can determine status in everyday life from observing a person's appearance, behavior, likes/dislikes, etc. It is here where Fussell's razor sharp wit and eye for detail either offends readers (perhaps cutting too close too home), or has them rolling on the floor laughing like myself.
My main caveat is that you should not treat this book as a sociological treatise on the class system in America. While it is well written, organized, and offers Fussell's curmudgeonly witticism, it fails to address any major sociological issue or question. Fussell is (was?) a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and thus I am emphasizing the entertainment value of book in my review. If you would like to examine the sociological implications of class more thoroughly (especially the upper classes), I would suggest that you read the works of Fussell's colleague Prof. E. Digby Baltzell.
Overall, I still rate the book 5 stars because it is rare to see a book this well-written.
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