Books I’d Trade My Lunch For 1: Significant Objects, edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn (100 contributors)

*[Series note: Well, there’s that Erasmus quote, right? I don’t think I ever actually traded my lunch for books as a kid, but I did stash the lunch money. I knew that books were expensive because they equalled exactly three lunches, give or take.]

When you hear someone putting a value on a sentimental object, it’s usually not a comfortable thing.  Someone has passed away and your trying to liquidate the estate for fair division; maybe it’s just been sitting in your drawer for twenty years too long and the money would be handy; maybe you’ve had the sudden urge to divest yourself of objects that are slowing you down. When you hear the price mentioned, speculatively or with certainty, you feel the contrast. You might as well be seeing two things in split screen in that moment: a kind of vision or aura of what that object means with all its associated human connections, and a pile of cold, hard dollars and cents. It never makes sense. Those two things are parallel lines that never cross, even if you make a deal.

If you don’t know about the “experiment” undertaken by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, hosted on their Hilobrow website, and you probably don’t, their new book might repulse you for a second or two. It seems to be all about strange, found objects and the price people are willing to pay. You may even think it’s a bit of a scam. Because with each object is a fictionalized but just about believable story relating to that object meant to increase its value. And the book even clearly presents the bottom line: were people taken in? How much did they pay? If that were really what the book was about, it’d be no better than a weekend flea market with a few clever pickpockets moving smoothly through the crowd.

That’s not it. Fortunately, the book contains plenty of explanation to dip into or scrutinize at will. It’s a study that’s profoundly interesting because it’s as much about storytelling as the intangible and non-quantifiable side of the role that objects play in our lives. Walker and Glenn invited the submission of objects with crafted stories attached, a communal project that brought new writers, famous writers, and the generally fascinated out of the woodwork to participate. The goal was to try to measure the ways in which associations raised the perceived value of these objects.

So, as you might imagine, this led to some pretty radical high-wire acts of the literary variety. In these short-form stories, contributors really pushed themselves to craft evocative prose, bizarre and unexpected incidents, and emotional resonance. But what happened, whether they realized it or not, is that the writers ended up telling so much about their own sliding scale for appreciating objects that Significant Objects produces a social biography on two fronts. After reading a few entries, which can be read in any order, a plus, you get the gist of how the writers feel about objects as well as the strange factors that might have influenced e-bay bidders to pay more for this than that. I personally find the autobio aspect the most compelling evidence because it seems whimsical. There’s an underlying principle among the contributors, a silent one: if they bothered to send these entries in, they find objects fascinating and were intrigued by trying to pin that down a little.

Walker and Glenn truly tapped into a wellspring of very human responses when they proposed the project, which became so successful that it spread into three “volumes”.  Out of these, 100 examples were selected for the book, published by Fantagraphics in April 2012. The book spans genres in its appearance; it resembles a miniaturized coffee table book light enough to carry around, and you’ll want to do that, too. Dual colorful cover designs to choose from highlight the nature of the book: you choose, explore, make connections between objects and stories that you find inside. One feature that’s particularly evocative is the use of gradient symbols to categorize and organize the featured objects: fossil, evidence, totem, talisman, and idol. There’s an extra avenue to explore if you wish: why does an object fit into one category rather than another, and how do they overlap? And is it the features of the object itself, or the way in which the contributing writer has interpreted the object in their story that influences that decision?

The categories take us back to the anthropological roots at work here and remind us that within incredibly urban settings, we still instinctually react to the patterns of life established by our ancestors. Even the irreligious may find themselves treating an heirloom or symbolic object in a religious way. A common theme arising in many of the stories might be termed something like the “effective moment”. In essence, many stories ask the question “what incident would be necessary to imbue an object like this with quirky or astonishingly deep meaning?”. And the wheels turn toward possible answers. The answers all form their own possible universes. The upshot is that many of these fascinating tales are about poignant, tragic, or memorable moments in time as much as the objects that channel them.

As the book warns us “artificially increasing the subjective value of objects will most likely lead to unintended consequences” and one of the obvious “consequences” of the Significant Objects “study” is great storytelling. Artist Gary Panter’s contribution also points to another “unintended consequence” of the experiment: the expansion of the grey area between function and art. Many of these objects are purely ornamental, but quite a few also have some function attributed to them originally. Like the found objects of the modernist and postmodernist art movements, these objects, re-staged as new finds, take on a certain aura of possible meaning, and this meaning is at least partly shaped by the person who selected and placed them in the public eye. Gary Panter chooses a well-worn Dacor dive-mask with some perilously angled clamps that suggest the intense pressure of oxygen, depth, and strange adventures. The tale Panter weaves is entirely unpredictable: the detailed construction of a monster hoax at a lake by a young person, ingeniously staged and enacted with great relish, featuring the diving mask. No spoilers here, but the lines between fiction and reality blur for our narrator just as smoothly as the lines between “real” objects and semi-fictional narratives blur in the work as a whole. Dive into this book enough and you come to one conclusion: that line does not matter. Significance matters, and that has nothing to do with accuracy. The role of memory, and of re-imagining events, trumps every time.

Jonathan Lethem’s Missouri Shot Glass gave me pause. I felt I ought to prepare myself for this one since I had realized by now that this book could jump into strange territory without much warning. It should have occurred to me what a variety of styles and vantages the writers had at their disposal to suit their vision of their chosen object. Lethem plows into a stream of self-reflexive monologue from an intricate persona before you can even get through the first sentence. It’s a masterpiece of compression among many sterling examples of short prose. A distinct sub-category of the significant objects take us on a journey; this “totem” does also. It takes us back to the narrator’s Missouri, in memory, but it’s just as much a story about the vagaries of publication as a geographical portrait. You don’t expect to meet hoards of aspiring writers in a cornfield, but Lethem’s narrator assures us of a hidden world of rural prosifiers that have pushed him, shot-glass in hand, toward reassessment. Another common feature to some of these stories that Lethem brings out with a literal and figurative reductionism: the reflective, often sharp-edged memoir. You might assume from this that familiar objects, in fact, fill us with regret. Why we hold onto them becomes the great mystery.

It would probably take a literary genius of the highest caliber to sound the heights and depths of human experience as thoroughly as these hundred contributors do in their composite testament to the lost and found. That may be yet another “unintended consequence” of Significant Objects. In their analysis of the rise and fall of sales for these objects, all placed on Ebay with tale to sink or swim, Glenn and Walker come to some startling conclusions that really raise more questions than they answer. For one thing, the objects with stories by well-known writers did not necessarily sell for a higher price. Also, objects considered “talismans”, meaning “magical, lucky, and/or alive” fetched the greatest haul. Maybe this means that people are still, deep down, attracted more to certain types of objects than others when it comes to subjective value. Or maybe those kinds of objects just give them more to talk about. That’s the last thing to notice about this handbook to the bizarre, if we’re stating the obvious: there’s a very dynamic relationship between objects and what we want to say about them. It doesn’t take that much encouragement to get us talking. If we keep things, and even revere things, like a Rhino figurine, jar of marbles, Start Wars cards or a Hawk ashtray, it’s not because someone else told us that they have value, usually, but because we know there’s a story behind them. Significant Objects tells a small part of that very big story.

To learn more about Significant Objects, which is still an ongoing project, visit the Hilobrow website here and Fantagraphics here.


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