I can't decide if it's a paradox, an irony, or evidence that Virginia Postrel's publisher hates her. In her new book, The Substance of Style, Postrel preaches the importance of aesthetics—the "look and feel" of things—in selling products. She also argues that an author's attractiveness can be a major asset in book sales—see the back cover of works by Michael Lewis. So what did HarperCollins do? It slapped an ugly red-and-green cover on the dust jacket and went with a small black-and-white mug shot of this very photogenic author.

That was unfortunate, because, through a process Postrel calls the "aesthetic ratchet effect," such a cover is … not likely to help book sales. Though it would not have looked out of place in the '70s and '80s, we have lately come to demand more of our goods and services. It's no longer enough that products function properly, we want them to look cool too, to reflect well on the buyers—that is, us.

So, on the one hand, there is a massive amount of money to be made from satisfying customer demand for better-looking things (e.g., designer toasters or the new VW bug). On the other, this creates something like an aesthetic arms race, where products have to look better in order not to be left behind. I fear the look of this book may confine most of the copies to the industry equivalent of the dustbin of history, the remainder bins.

That would be a shame. Though the new tome isn't up to the level of her previous one, The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel does a good job of showing just how much the U.S., in particular, changed during the '90s. Judging by nearly every indicator, there was an explosion of options in every sphere of life. In dress, in transportation, in housing, in cosmetics, even in toiletries, ...

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