Book 1, a funny book, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
I chose this as a book that was supposed to be funny (I have no idea where I got the impression that this would be funny–my bad?). I definitely found it to be more of an eye-opening, terrifying sort of an experience. Sinclair Lewis wrote it as a satire of American middle-class life and the increasing pressure to conform with stifling and unrealistic values and norms. The main thread of the story, in my humble opinion, centers upon the idea that even if you are not particularly smart, deserving, or hardworking, you will be materially and socially successful in Lewis’ America if you follow the prescribed rules of society. If people like you, then you will be successful. Anyone in today’s business world knows the adage “It’s all in who you know” is true, and this is exactly the world of Lewis’ Babbitt, with the addition of, “and if they like how you behave.”
George Babbitt is a middle-aged, successful real estate agent. He lives in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith. He has a wife, three beautiful children, a lovely home, and a successful business. He’s a chairman on several committees and belongs to all of the important social groups. He’s invited to the best parties and rubs shoulders with the “cream of the crop” in Zenith. Babbitt is an entirely unlikeable character. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans, he is a doppelganger of Uncle Vernon. He’s boring, has no thoughts of his own, isn’t particularly smart or charming. He is just always trying to say and do whatever will get the best response from those around him. Lewis created him as the epitome of conformity and successful eggs the reader on to begin hating the toadying conformity we see in Babbitt. It subtly convinces us to be less conforming in our own ways just by seeing how ugly it looks on someone else.
Babbitt’s big moment comes when he begins to buck the system and starts misbehaving. He takes on a mistress, supports the opposing political party, and goes out on benders with a group known for being raucous. As a result, his business is threatened, his wife is concerned about the state of their marriage and has a health scare, and he is no longer welcomed in his elite social circles. People start whispering about him and even ignore him completely. Finally, one of his friends tells him he needs to get his behavior in line or he will be completely ruined. Babbitt has the opportunity to make a stand and live an authentic life but it will be at the cost of the American middle-class dream. Ultimately, he chooses to conform because he is too afraid of a life lived amongst the fringes of society. This leaves readers with a depressing sense of Lewis’ vision of future American culture.