Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Diderot effect

Inspired by yesterday's success with our kitchen cart, we went out today to buy some new dish towels that wouldn't look disgraceful hanging beside it. Unfortunately, we didn't read the package labels very well, and ended up with a whack of dish cloths. 

It's fresh and new, but very small. I don't think we can use it as a dish towel!

It wasn't our day for reading labels. Our new door mat is too long, but we're going to keep it for the winter anyway.  It gives us room for drying out snowy boots.

The Diderot effect is what happens when you buy a new dress, say, and find it makes your shoes look so shabby that you have to buy new ones. Or, kicked up a notch, a fancy new bathroom sink ends up triggering a whole bathroom -- or maybe a whole house -- renovation. The phenomenon is named after an essay by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who records what happens after someone gives him a beautiful new scarlet dressing gown. Suddenly his chair, his desk, the very prints on his wall aren't good enough for his new elegance. Debt ensues.

"I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one," he writes in "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown." "Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain."

I thought of Diderot's dressing gown when I realized the new kitchen cart we installed yesterday made the dish towels hanging beside it look very old and sad. And in shuffling items from the kitchen cupboards to the new cabinet, I noticed the newspapers lining the shelves were yellowed and tattered (some were dated 2003, yikes!) Maybe we should line the shelves properly? Maybe we should get some new dish towels?

Buoyed by yesterday's unexpected success (we are terrible shoppers), we went all out at Home Hardware, snapping up two packages of new dishtowels, rolls of shelf liner, a new mat for the kitchen door to replace one shredding at the corners, and the piece de resistance, a pair of new red oven mitts to replace the ones with burn marks. Nothing too good for the room that houses the new kitchen cart!

Alas, one of the packages of dish towels was not towels at all, but dish cloths -- and so many! The door mat was the wrong size. The shelf liner didn't stick very well. And burrowing into a kitchen drawer, we found an unused pair of oven mitts that were better than the new ones.

Nothing serious, and we're certainly not going to do a kitchen renovation. But given that it's the Christmas gift-giving season, it might be good for all of us to keep in mind the dangers of the Diderot effect.

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