Our run of ’80s-themed posts continues thanks to the New York Times, which ran an essay on the OPH yesterday. Writer James Poniewozik links the book to a brief moment of transition in American history out of the dark ’70s and into the era of Reagan, “Dynasty,” Alex P. Keaton and popped polo collars.
I never owned a copy. I’m not sure I ever saw it outside a mall bookstore. All the same, it was everywhere. I knew it secondhand, through its resonance in news features and on TV and in the pastel-and-khaki transformation of the popular kids. That was all I needed to know that I hated it and everything it stood for.
…“Handbook” was one of the first touchstones of an era that celebrated coveting, from the bubbly home tours of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to the upscale-aspiration of MTV’s early videos. It was O.K. to want stuff again. This was a shift with broad social and political implications, even if at the time, I saw those reflected mostly in my classmates with their dumb alligator shirts.
… In 1980, the “Handbook” was a fun lark. Read today, it’s an ambivalent document of a transitional moment, when the blue-jean populism of the 1970s was giving way to designer-jean materialism, eventually ushering in a capitalism more rapacious and untiring than the blue-blood leisure Birnbach’s prepsters aspired to. It reads especially quaint and wistful now that the cultural markers it delineates have been scrambled, with conservative self-described anti-elitist “deplorables” pledging fealty to a country-club owner.
… I didn’t know about any of those nuances at the time, just as I didn’t realize how much of the anti-snob comedy I loved — “Doonesbury,” “Animal House” — was in fact created by alumni of Yale and Harvard. I didn’t really understand the American class system that the “Handbook” described and that the mass-market preppy fad elided. I thought of my public-school classmates, buying boat shoes at the mall, as preppies. Had I read chapter six of the “Handbook,” about life in the suburbs, I would have known that “What Preppies don’t need are good public schools and a shopping mall.” (Ouch.)
When it came to prepdom, I didn’t know what the thing was. I just knew that being not that thing was key to being who I was.
Check out the piece here. If you get blocked by a paywall, use a different browser and make sure you’re logged out of Google. — CC