''Things'' we love

Writers extol sacred objects of everyday use — and uselessness
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  September 24, 2007

A CHEESE BOX, a collection of fingernail clippings, and an “ugly” inflatable doll are all precious to their owners.

Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance | Edited by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes | Princeton Architectural Press | 174 pages | Paper | $17.50

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With | Edited by Sherry Turkle | MIT Press | 402 pages | $24.95

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Until I was 14, I spent nearly every Saturday evening wading through a wealth of antique objects in my grandmother’s small apartment in the Baltimore suburbs. With her mismatched, plentiful collection of teacups, I’d envision elaborate, imaginary tea parties. Cloaked in one of her smocked aprons, I’d peruse her jewelry box and model broaches and clip-on earrings in her oval-shaped bedroom mirror. But when she passed away, there was only one thing I wanted: the tiny Cabbage Patch Kid. It was a plastic figurine with blonde pigtails and red glasses, sitting on a stack of books. Someone had given it to my grandmother, as a joke probably, because it looked like me (or at least the Cabbage Patch version of me), and she had treasured it. She kept it on her dresser for years, and now it sits on my dresser in Cambridge.

I see the tiny Cabbage Patch Kid as one of my most valued objects; a reminder of the ever-increasing gap between now and the time I spent with my grandmother. It’s what Sherry Turkle would call my “evocative object,” and Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes would call my object of “unexpected significance.” Turkle, Glenn, and Hayes are editors of two recently published collections of essays that examine everyday objects to which we attach personal significance. Glenn and Hayes’s Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance and Turkle’s Evocative Objects: Things We Think With are not tales from the compulsive hoarders of the world — the books focus not on eccentric junk collections but specific objects with personal meanings.

“Just as we are collectors of things, things are collectors of meaning,” writes Glenn in his introduction to Things, a book born from a drunken conversation at a dinner party with co-creator Hayes. Hayes, a New York–based designer, and Glenn — a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section, mastermind behind the fantastically philosophical, sadly defunct Hermenaut ’zine, and instigator of writerly gatherings in Boston — put the word out to potential contributors, mostly artists, designers, and writers.

“We wanted objects that nobody else would have found remarkable,” Glenn says over the phone from his house in Jamaica Plain. The pair’s call for weird, wonderful artifacts resulted in a collection of 75 love letters to the things that collect dust on forgotten shelves and elicit remarks of “What is this?” from bemused guests, yet can never be discarded. “People had objects that were like totems, that act as some kind of guiding spirit,” Glenn says. “We think of people having totems as something that’s primitive — enlightened people don’t do that. And yet here they were doing it.”

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