Objects & Their Stories

What if a person purchased an object that s/he wouldn't normally buy because it had a wonderful story attached to it? That is the premise behind the project encompassed in the book Significant Objects. In the same way that Walter Benjamin collected and kept many of his books because of the memories they held for him, just like Nabokov felt that objects had layers of meaning, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, the creators and editors of the project, understood that stories are important to our lives. But how important? Enough to change our behavior? They decided to do an experiment. In it, they found that when stories were assigned to objects, tchotchkes could be transformed into trophies. We aren't talking about provenance, or ownership, famous people or otherwise. We're just talking about the power of the story.

The editors started out by buying 100 objects that they felt were insignificant: figurines, ashtrays, toys, old tools, patches, glassware, etc., and asked 100 writers each to create a story that included that object. Photos of each object, along with the story as the description, were posted for sale on eBay. (Added 2/12/13: to clarify, the story was disclosed as fiction on the page with the object and a link to the website was included for more information.) By the end of the project the editors found they had actually made a substantial amount of money (which was given to the respective authors or donated to charity). The stories sold the pieces. For example, an Indian maiden figurine (Item 40) originally cost 99 cents and sold for $157.50. The story and picture also appear here; the story is by R.K. Scher, and is one of my favorites in the book. The website for the project is Significant Objects.

My two other favorites are fictional stories that imbue the objects with talismanlike or lucky qualities, and give us a glimpse into the very human and emotional lives of the characters. Toy Car (Item 69) is by Marisa Silver (originally donated / sold for 41.00). You can see it also here. Another wonderful story is Fortune- Telling Device (Item 71) by Rachel Axler (1.49 / 56.00. Read it here.

And Jonathan Lethem's entry for the Missouri shot glass had a paragraph in the middle that made me laugh out loud. (He'll have a piece in the upcoming Star 82 Review!)

A dozen more I found notable for one reason or another:
45—Wooden Mallet by Colson Whitehead (simplicity)
51—SARS Mask by Helen DeWitt (oddness)
54—Shark and Seal Pens by Susanna Daniel (story)
66—Praying Hands by Rosecrans Baldwin (concept)
68—Jar of Marbles by Ben Ehrenreich (surreal, laughed out loud in the middle)
73—Toy Airplane by Robert Lopez (minimalistic telling)
74—Miniature Turkey Dinner by Jenny Offill (strangeness, concept)
75—Pink Horse by Kate Bernheimer (imagery, but very sad story!)
76—Candyland Labyrinth by Matthew Battles (story)
81—Creamer Cow by Lucinda Rosenfeld (naming the object)
91—Maine Statutes Dish by Ben Katchor (concept, humor)
92—Star Wars Cards by Jim Shepard (story, emotional truth)

Even without the experiment and the data included in the book, an object is a great starting point for a story. If you are having trouble with subjects for book art or for writing, go to a flea market or garage sale and pick up something strange and cheap to work with. Or take something out of your desk drawer for something that holds a story you already know. 

A similar project, and even more fun (I think), is a collection of fictional Q&A that James Thurber illustrated and wrote called "The Pet Department" from the book The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities. He drew an animal doing something odd or vague, then wrote to himself as if he were an advice columnist. Yet another good writing/book approach to try.

The Significant Objects book holds a fascinating collection of writing and some really hilarious objects. The binding, unfortunately, is irritating. But, unlike a book by a book artist, the editors and authors are not to blame for the binding: the publisher is. The book is stiff to open, and once you try cracking it open to read, it never completely closes. But it's going by my bed and not on my coffee table (I don't have one, anyway), so if I have to rubber band it closed, that's okay with me. Maybe I can find a rubber band with a really interesting story on eBay…

Addendum, a few hours later: If you mention it, it probably exists. I was told about these James Bond rubber bands now going for about $34.


Trish J said…
I am avidly reading ALL your columns and hope you might consider turning them into a book. I am one of those people who can put together book structures, but often "hit the wall" over content. Your columns have really helped me think differently.
Trish Johnston
Atlanta, GA
Alisa said…
Thank you! Some day, Trish! It's in the back of my mind and I hope to get the essays into shape for print very soon!
Anonymous said…
Am I the only one who is disturbed by the hoax aspect of this "research"? Wonder how the hoodwinked purchasers on eBay feel about being research subjects. Then again, on eBay it's "buyer beware."
Alisa said…
Yes, it would be dishonest to claim the stories as true. The disclosure that the stories were fiction was posted alongside the stories & objects. The project leaders also put a link to their website for clarification and more information. If the buyers read carefully, they would know what it was about. As usual: read carefully.