Books about Objects

In the most recent issue of Museum Anthropology Review, there is a review of Chris Caple’s Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past. (Please note the link is to the HTML version of the review, but a PDF version is also available.) The reviewer, Jeb Card, does a good job of laying out the strengths and structure of the book, which strikes me as being somewhat divergent from my own interests in material culture. That noted, it did send me to Amazon.com to see what a search on history of the world in objects would turn up. It’s an interesting mix:

First up there is Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, which he describes as follows in the introduction:

In this book, we travel back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world and been shaped by it over the past two million years. The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made — all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved or used, broken and thrown away. I’ve chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey — from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum.

The next book, and I’m only going to sketch out the top three because the focus of the search results rapidly deteriorates past the first six hits, is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Gilbert Taylor, of Booklist, describes the book thus:

Only the supremely self-confident put forth all-encompassing theories of world history, and Morris is one such daredevil. An archaeologist by academic specialty, he advances a quasi-deterministic construct that is suitable for nonacademics. From a repeatedly enunciated premise that humans by nature are indolent, avaricious, and fearful, Morris holds that such traits, when combined with sociology and geography, explain history right from the beginning, when humanity trudged out of Africa, through the contemporary rivalry between China and America. Such temporal range leaves scant room for individual human agency: Morris names the names of world history, but in his narrative, leaders and tyrants, at best, muddle through patterns of history that are beyond their power to shape. And those patterns, he claims, can be numerically measured by a “social development index” that he applies to every epochal change from agriculture to the industrial revolution. However, the reading is not as heavy as it may sound. His breezy style and what-if imagination for alternative scenarios should maintain audience interest; whether his sweeping perspective convinces is another matter altogether.

Finally in the top three is Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By, by Anna Jane Grossman and James Gulliver Hancock. The title gives away the fact that the book is breezily nostalgic, as the product description notes: “Obsolete contains essays and entries on more than 100 alphabetized fading subjects, including Blind Dates, Mix Tapes, Getting Lost, Porn Magazines, Looking Old, Operators, Camera Film, Hitchhiking, Body Hair, Writing Letters, Basketball Players in Short Shorts, Privacy, Cash, and, yes, Books.”

An interesting collection. It moves in short order from the serious to the silly rather quickly, with a trip through the future along the way. All three books have been published in the past year: the first two in 2010, and Obsolete in 2009. Clearly, along with making, there is a rise in interest in objects. Given this search result, it’s just not clear that we know what to do with objects, or, conversely, objects can do just about anything.

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