4:17 PM CDT, August 17, 2012
“Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things” only slightly exaggerates. It is 100 stories about 100 things, though only a handful of the stories are extraordinary. In fact, fewer are memorable.
Not that it matters; indeed, the stories' quality is somewhat beside the point. Editors Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker (Glenn's best known for Hermenaut, a cult classic of a '90s zine; Walker writes often about marketing and consumer issues for New York Times Magazine) had an ingenious idea for a website named SignificantObjects.com, which they started in 2009.
They write in the book's introduction that the point was to test a hypothesis: "Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively."
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So here's what they did: They bought a lot of random crap at flea markets, thrift stores and yard sales — figurines, novelty pens, kitschy candles, old meat thermometers. They spent no more than $4 on any item. For all 100 items, they spent $128.74. They paired each item with a writer or artist, landing a (genuinely) extraordinary group of talent: Kurt Andersen, Neil LaBute, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Colson Whitehead, Heidi Julavits, Merrill Markoe, Luc Sante, on and on, 100 in all. And they asked each writer or artist to make up a short story about the item; then they posted the item and the story on eBay.
Despite posting the items with a caveat that the story attached was fictional — some stories claim the item for sale was destroyed, Myla Goldberg's paragraph-long story about a bubble maker begins "This is not a toy" — each item, now having something like a celebrated history, sold for much more than they bought for. I was about to write, "much more than they were worth" — but again, worth is subjective.
For instance, Andersen writes a compellingly off-handed tale about a $2 Santa Claus nutcracker and how James Dean once got a, ahem, sexual organ stuck in it.
The nutcracker sold for $15.50.
Curtis Sittenfeld contributed a tale of unrequited love that just glances in the direction of a $1 dog figurine.
The dog sold for $17.50.
There's a reasonable argument that the authors' celebrity has a lot to do with the final take. And yet, reading the stories and what each item was sold for, one notices that the only constant is that a story was attached at all. A 33-cent mallet written about by Whitehead goes for a nice $71; but a kitschy 99-cent figurine written about by relatively unknown French novelist R.K. Scher sells for $157.50.
The total sale value of the objects came to $3,612.51. Proceeds go to the authors and to nonprofits.
As for the quality of the stories, it's the least significant thing about "Significant Objects," though none are long enough to be taxing and several are moving acts of micro fiction. (Stewart O'Nan's story, paired with a duck-headed tray, is about a woman named Emily, later the protagonist of his novel "Emily, Alone.")
Not that Glenn and Walker's idea is intended to be an inquiry on consumer behavior. And not that they even had to go to this trouble to prove their point: attaching a story is partly the appeal of a farmer's market, a Happy Meal. The right back story for a brand such as Apple, the editors argue, helps build a phenomenon.
A note about the physical book, itself a gorgeous, significant object: There are two versions of covers. The cover itself has a rubbery elasticity. Inside, each item is given a big picture, purchase and sale prices and the story. In fact, the book is so lovingly assembled that I felt a little bad breaking the spine of my copy.
Though, in truth, I don't feel that bad. I break book spines. I set down coffee cups on covers. I do it, I realized as I read "Significant Objects," because it reminds me that this book now has a history, a story: I once did that.
I think that's why I do it. My reasons are unaccountable.
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features writer.
Edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn
Fantagraphics, 256 pages, $24.99
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