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Hello good buy

For a shopping apostle, this anthology of women's devotion to the temples of consumerism is liberating and affirming.

There is a theory that the world is not so much going to hell in a handbasket as clattering towards Hades in a shopping trolley with a wonky front wheel. Consumerism, some say, has become our new religion. We acquire goods rather than aspire to spiritual goodness. We've turned our back on the church and flocked to the mall. We've lost God and found a widescreen plasma.

Generally, I find that the people who say this sort of thing are wearing cheap shoes and are therefore not to be trusted. Let me raise my hand - nay, both hands - in the air as a faithful apostle of the gospel of shopping. I have spent a good part of my life in the quest for the Perfect Thing, which I have yet to find, but I've cheerfully bought a lot of other quite splendid things along the way.

And if consumerism is our new religion, then The Virago Book of the Joy of Shopping is a superbly comprehensive concordance. Editor Jill Foulston has gathered together writing from some 300 women spanning 500 years, all relating in one way or another to the shopping experience.

It is an eclectic mix - mostly excerpts from novels, but also poems, lyrics, personal letters, journal entries, shopping lists from the Middle Ages, blogs from last year and a smattering of pithy quotes, including this from Imelda Marcos: "Win or lose, we go shopping after the election."

Imelda is tucked between literary greats like George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte, alongside current writers like Jenny Diski and Margaret Atwood, and shares space between the covers with Simone de Beauvoir, Katherine Mansfield and Dolly Parton.

Which makes this sound like a nasty literary jumble sale, except that Foulston structures the anthology like a well-designed department store - everything in one place, sure, but easy to find and with a satisfying flow from one level to the next. Spending too much time in produce? Then let's go and look at hats.

Foulston provides context for each new writer, and each chapter finds a fresh theme: iconic stores, exotic markets, bargain hunting, shopping etiquette, indulging in luxuries or just stocking up on the mundane.

Universal themes emerge - thrill, guilt, anxiety and pleasure. The book also sheds light on the "why" of women's shopping. (It's Virago, so men will have to publish their own shopping anthology to discover theirs - though we learn that men spend more on impulse shopping than women, and when they're young they steal more expensive things. Women go on nicking lipsticks and other tat into late middle-age.)

Possible "whys" arrange themselves: the Feminist Theory that shopping was the first thing to bring us personal freedom and independent choice; the Biological Theory that women are impelled "to make themselves fine"; and the Fantasy Theory that we believe each new thing will make us more beautiful or even "more like ourselves". Or it could just be a distraction from the parts of our lives we cannot control - simply put in a diary from the American Civil War: "June 3: Had the blues. I bought me a dress."

Whichever theory resonates most, it is delightful to discover that Jane Austen was obsessive about the price of lace, and intriguing to read what could be a description of a $2 Shop - "It was the deadly monotony of goodishness and cheapishness in everything that oppressed you" - except that it was written in 1891. Or to consider the cultural differences between American and British shopping attitudes, French and Italian fashion, or that postmodern online shopping is not so far from the pre-modern lists given to servants back when markets were an unsuitable place for a lady.

Most of all, it is a treat to read what good writers have to say about this very personal passion, and to savour their skill and wit. For a shopping apostle, the total effect is liberating and affirming - if a little too dense to devour in one go. Occasionally, you have to put the book down, pop out and buy something.