An abstraction that tends to squirm free of even the most generic definition, the concept of aesthetics has tickled and tortured thinkers for ages. Everybody knows what "aesthetics" connotes, more or less, but measuring it alongside variables like value and meaning requires tools more precise than intuition can offer. One way to deal with the mess–an approach adopted wholeheartedly in Virginia Postrel's The Substance Of Style–is to reduce the entire notion of aesthetics to homey coffeehouse décor and neat-looking plastics. From there, it's easy to tag the present day as "the age of look and feel," and then trot out support for a thesis that seems sensible enough, but means little within its own context. Working fatefully as her own worst foe, Postrel starts by charting the murk of aesthetics with a fair amount of drive. Focusing mostly on industrial design, she traces aesthetics' swing from high-minded ideal to workaday attribute. A practice that once aimed for profound truth now strives for serviceability, so that, for modern-day designers, "'form follows emotion' has supplanted 'form follows function.'" Addressing critics who write off such an evolution as superficial, Postrel argues that surface and substance are not conflicting notions, but parts of the same whole. Her thesis makes sense, but mostly because it's hard to imagine anyone taking issue with it. The book weaves through a few intriguing passages (a trip to a GE Plastics lab, stories of neighborhood beautification committees), but otherwise trades on flimsy or self-evident assertions. The argument that aesthetic concerns are not absolutely meaningless consumes Postrel, whose few leading observations get muddled in a book too rudderless and deferential to assert much more than "[Starbucks] is to the age of aesthetics what McDonald's was to the age of convenience or Ford was to the age of mass production." That's a significant phenomenon, to be sure, but The Substance Of Style treats it as news rather than established background.