To Rent vs. Buy

In an age when practically all of culture can be rented with a click, critic A.A. Gill makes the case for a fully stocked shelf.

I am a child of the ’60s, the magical, comically stoned land before time, when property was theft, when breadheads were to be pitied and when people wrote books called things like Steal This Book. (Now, wasn’t that a prophetic title?) My children were spawned in the ’90s and the aughts, the me-me-me generation, when greed was good and acquisition was a job title. So how come I’m the one who wants to own stuff, who insists on buying books and music and films, who is typing this to pay the interest on a mortgage, whereas the kids, a boy and a girl, rent their movies and their television programs, listen to their music in exchange for ignoring a lot of advertisements, and read books and news for free? They aspire to rent shared flats for a few weeks at a time. They rent or borrow everything from tuxedos to Citi Bikes. How did this happen?

My son says not owning things is to be unencumbered, uncluttered, unweighed down by stuff. Although he still seems to have quite a lot of mine. The prospect of owning a house anywhere he’d actually want to live is so remote, it would involve Trappist renunciation of all other goals or pleasures. So he’s happy to strike it off the wish list.

But the truth is not so simple. They have transferred their ownership from the physical to the theoretical. They actually collectively buy into a vast tonnage of stuff on their computers. These don’t feel like possessions because my kids don’t have to find a garage to store them in, but still they own bits and slivers and memes of thousands of things, endeavors and ideas. Every time they click on something, it’s being monetized. And every ad they wait five seconds to cancel pays for something. They live in an urban mercantile world without the pain of maintenance or mothballs.

The attraction of renting was also part of the conspicuous consumption of the ’90s. City boys and traders used to loudly boast that if it floated, flew or fornicated, they’d rent it. Canny real estate agents will tell you never to own a roof in a 19th-century city. The newly acquisitive rented grouse moors, skis and marquees.

In the ’30s, Ewan MacColl wrote a protest song to go with a mass trespass of land that was used as a grouse moor. He sang, “No man has the right to own mountains.” And in the ’60s that became a slogan for my generation. Now alternative, free, ecosensitive people are encouraged to buy rainforests and bogs and mountains, because ownership is the only way to protect what you love. My children feel no obligation to the films, box sets, books and tunes they stream and skim through. My daughter says she rarely finishes a song before flicking to the next. With ownership comes an obligation of care. To own something has a heft to it. A weight of importance. To own a book or a recording makes you complicit in its creation. You have a stake in the talent and the civilization that made it. You become a custodian of the things you choose. To rent is to always be just looking; to browse, without commitment or care for creation or preservation of your culture. You will always be on the outside looking in. To be part of it, you’ve got to own it.