You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, was first published in 1922. It describes the life of George Babbitt, a moderately wealthy real estate broker in the prosperous city of Zenith. He has a wife, Myra, and three children. Babbitt is the iconic businessman, always ready to make a deal. He sees life through the lens of business and money, and through money the status it brings.

Babbitt is not above using shady means to get a deal. He uses his business contacts to get inside information and buy properties in order to sell them at inflated prices. Yet when one of his employees goes so far as to steal back a lease contract after getting a better offer, Babbitt is incensed at the employee. He sees no correlation between his shady dealings and those of his employee. When Babbitt gets involved at his church, it is to turn the Sunday School into a competition with the others in the city.

Babbitt is under pressure to conform, and this is largely a story of conformity: community pressure versus individual desires. Babbitt becomes known as a good orator and well liked by the city's influential men. He becomes vice president of the Boosters. He holds rousing parties, full of illegal alcohol. Even though Babbitt and his colleagues believe in Prohibition in theory, they feel it should only be intended for the lower classes. There is definitely a strong sense of class and entitlement among the peers.

Babbitt tries to fool around, though he doesn't succeed at first. He and his friend Paul, who is married to a spiteful woman, travel to New York and Chicago. But Babbitt is dismayed when he travels to Chicago on his own and finds Paul flirting with a woman. He tries to talk Paul out of doing anything he would regret, and for a while Babbitt feels better about Myra. But when Paul is arrested for shooting and nearly killing his wife, something seems to snap in Babbitt. He soon finds himself hanging around a wild group calling themselves the Bunch, and a middle-aged woman named Tanis who is a renter of his. His respectable friends look on Babbitt with dismay. When Myra returns from out of town he begins to treat her poorly, and she doesn't know what to think.

Things come to a head when Babbitt is invited to join the Good Citizens' League. At this point Babbitt must make a decision: continue to live his new wild life of freedom, or return to respectability by renouncing his new friends and new liberal politics. At first he refuses to be pressured into joining the group, but when he finds that business starts to dwindle away he changes his mind. He rejects Tanis and her friends and embraces his staid respectable married life.

Babbitt stands out as a character who's striving to fulfill his desires despite the demands of married life and the rules of society. He believes that he's always done what's asked of him and never what he really wants. His relationships with people are centered around money and status. He can't wait for his wife to leave town so he can make plans to fool around with single women.

I found the writing to be a bit dry. The first two thirds of the book get a bit monotonous, following Babbitt in his business dealings and society events. The story is an interesting snapshot of life during Prohibition. B

The full text of the novel can be found on Project Gutenberg.

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