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Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There Paperback – March 6, 2001
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You've seen them: They sip double-tall, nonfat lattes, chat on cell phones, and listen to NPR while driving their immaculate SUVs to Pottery Barn to shop for $48 titanium spatulas. They tread down specialty cheese aisles in top-of-the-line hiking boots and think nothing of laying down $5 for an olive-wheatgrass muffin. They're the bourgeois bohemians--"Bobos"--an unlikely blend of mainstream culture and 1960s-era counterculture that, according to David Brooks, represents both America's present and future: "These Bobos define our age. They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life." Amusing stereotypes aside, they're an "elite based on brainpower" and merit rather than pedigree or lineage: "Dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes."
Bobos in Paradise is a brilliant, breezy, and often hilarious study of the "cultural consequences of the information age." Large and influential (especially in terms of their buying power), the Bobos have reformed society through culture rather than politics, and Brooks clearly outlines this passing of the high-class torch by analyzing nearly all aspects of life: consumption habits, business and lifestyle choices, entertainment, spirituality, politics, and education. Employing a method he calls "comic sociology," Brooks relies on keen observations, wit, and intelligence rather than statistics and hard theory to make his points. And by copping to his own Bobo status, he comes across as revealing rather than spiteful in his dead-on humor. Take his description of a typical grocery store catering to discriminating Bobos: "The visitor to Fresh Fields is confronted with a big sign that says 'Organic Items today: 130.' This is like a barometer of virtue. If you came in on a day when only 60 items were organic, you'd feel cheated. But when the number hits the three figures, you can walk through the aisles with moral confidence."
Like any self-respecting Bobo, Brooks wears his erudition lightly and comfortably (not unlike, say, an expedition-weight triple-layer Gore-Tex jacket suitable for a Mount Everest assault but more often seen in the gym). But just because he's funny doesn't mean this is not a serious book. On the contrary, it is one of the more insightful works of social commentary in recent memory. His ideas are sharp, his writing crisp, and he even offers pointed suggestions for putting the considerable Bobo political clout to work. And, unlike the classes that spawned them--the hippies and the yuppies--Brooks insists the Bobos are here to stay: "Today the culture war is over, at least in the realm of the affluent. The centuries-old conflict has been reconciled." All the more reason to pay attention. --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Transcendentalists vs. robber barons, beatniks vs. men in gray flannel suits, hippies vs. hawks: for more than a century, U.S. culture has been driven forward by tensions between bohemians and the bourgeoisie. Brooks, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard and at Newsweek and an NPR commentator, argues that this longstanding paradigm has been eroded by the merging of bohemians and bourgeoisie into a new cultural, intellectual and financial elite: the "bobos." Drawing on diverse examples--from an analysis of the New York Times' marriage pages, the sociological writings of Vance Packard, Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte and such films as The Graduate--he wittily defends his thesis that the information age, in which ideas are as "vital to economic success as natural resources or finance capital," has created a culture in which once-uptight Babbitts relax and enjoy the sensual and material side of life and anti-establishment types relish capitalist success; thus a meritocracy of intellectualism and money has replaced the cultural war between self-expression and self-control. While it works well on a superficial level, Brooks's analysis is problematic upon close examination. For example, his claim that Ivy League universities moved toward a meritocracy when, in the 1960s, they began accepting some students on academic rather than family standing ignores the reality that the "legacy" system is still in force. Ultimately, by focusing myopically on the discrete phenomenon of the establishment of "bobos," Brooks avoids more complicated discussions of race, class, poverty or the cultural wars on abortion, homosexuality, education and religion that still rage today. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
“Universities tolerate tattoos and piercing that would have seemed outrageous in the early 1950s, but they crack down on fraternity drinking rituals that would have seemed unexceptional. We feel less strict with our children, but in fact we intervene in their lives far more than parents did in the 1950s.”
I mean, I work in academia and don’t get it. A guy who wears a tie, smokes a cigarette, and likes to drink at the college pub is more of a threat than someone who looks like he just left a Slipknot concert. And yes, he’s the guy sitting next to your daughter in her “History of Sexuality” class at her private college. So this book resonates with me.
Also, Brooks’ insight on scantily clad women everywhere one looks is hilarious:
“To get a firsthand glimpse of these new codes, go down to your local park in the summertime. You’ll see women jogging or running in sports bras and skin-tight spandex pants. […] Women running around in their underwear in public. They’re not exposing themselves for the sake of exhibitionism. Any erotic effect of their near nudity is counteracted by their expressions of grim determination. They are working out.”
The preceding quote is amusingly accurate. It’s like I am reading a Tom Wolfe novel!
He makes several other good points: Americans no longer worship God, really, they worship health and their bodies. (I suppose it is truly a temple, as our Sunday School teachers taught us—before the Protestant decline in the U.S., which Brooks ably covers!) Also, the “intellectuals” today are bit soft—they go to bed early and are more concerned with getting their kids to school and making sure the “I Support NPR” bumper sticker is clean on the Prius—rather than discussing hermeneutics or Jorge Luis Borges, for example, over some whiskey and beer. I mean, it seems the Christopher Hitchens days of drinking and talking all night might be gone.
The text runs a bit long—he could have cut it down by 50 pages or so—and at times his commentary is too exaggerated, but overall this is a book that historians will read 20, 30 years from now in order to understand the pre-9/11 gilded age of the 1980s and 1990s. And yes, I hate to say it, but it is refreshing that Brooks is a moderate, and not completely consumed by political ideology.
Bobos are bourgeois bohemians, though I suppose they could also be bohemian bourgeois. Jerry Rubin famously went from the activist trenches to the world of the investor. The Clintons went from the world of the antiwar movement to the world of the futures trader. While he mentions exemplary cases such as this, Brooks is interested in something far more subtle. By turns humorous, silly and hypocritical, the decisions made by Bobos can also be seen as pleasantly moderate and, in their own way, disciplined and responsible.
Bobos still resist authority but they make exceptions for, e.g., the health of the body. They will not be bothered by activities that would have riled Victorians--women jogging in little more than spandex underwear--so long as they are doing so in an effort to better themselves and preserve their youth and health. They do not countenance materialism that goes beyond the necessary (the purchase of luxury yachts, e.g.) but they are quite prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a double oven with a six-burner cook surface. Gold faucet taps would disgust them but natural-surface slate showers they would see as de riguer. Where the sixties' radicals sometimes confined themselves to a diet that could be purchased by a third world peasant's wages, the Bobos shop at Whole Foods.
Brooks charts their patterns of consumption, their business and intellectual lives, their views of pleasure, their politics and their spirituality. The writing is simply beautiful, the examples by turns hilarious and touching. The book is more readable than any book with its range of reference and seriousness of purpose that I can recall. (It has also sparked a sequel: On Paradise Drive.)
Bobos in Paradise should be paired with Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Both deal with the ways in which educated elites have separated themselves from the poor and both show the ways in which the extremes of the sixties have been transcended by elites while they have nearly destroyed the lives of the poor.