''Things'' we love

By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  September 24, 2007

The many local contributors include writers Matthew Battles and Chris Fujiwara; artists Rosamond Purcell, Kristine Cortese, and Michael Lewy; archivist Kristin Parker, Boston magazine columnist Joe Keohane, Salon.com columnist Patrick Smith, and Boston Globe deputy design director Greg Klee. Other contributors from the world at large include author and critic Luc Sante and Baffler founder Thomas Frank. The short Things essays, which average around 300 words each, are humorous, heartbreaking, and mildly contemplative (though less analytic than Turkle’s), each accompanied by a snapshot of the object.

Included in this trove of ostensibly trivial things is a bagel burnt by Christopher Walken, a plastic pencil sharpener shaped like a TV, an electric saw designed for kids(!), a decade’s worth of collected fingernail clippings, and the “dog-chewed, ketchup-stained, Miracle-Whipped, pawed-by-a-thousand-little-hands” arm of a childhood couch. There’s a cast-off, robotic-looking hairdryer that local architect Henry Scollard spotted on Tremont Street one night in the summer of 2000. He rescued it from impending junkyard fate because, as he writes in the book, “If you’re a guy and you see something even vaguely robotic on the street, you don’t think; you act.” The robot represents Scollard’s tastes in concrete form. “I take a great deal of pleasure from an object (whether it be film, a piece of music or a consumer product) that has a big aspiration/reality imbalance,” Scollard writes in an e-mail. “Hence, the robot, which probably never really worked but was clearly the work of an obsessive mind.”

Turkle’s book, a collection of 34 essays mainly by academics, is the product of seven years’ worth of research, concurrent with her role as founder of the Initiative on Technology and the Self at MIT. Deemed “the digital age pundit” by Wired magazine, she’s used her position to study technology’s psychological impact and — as she writes in her concluding essay — to “explore how everyday objects become part of our inner life: how we use them to extend the reach of our sympathies by bringing the world within.” Turkle divides her collection of essays into six theoretical themes, based on the relationship between the object and the person — for instance, “objects of transition and passage” (a 1964 Ford Falcon, a stuffed bunny named Murray) or “objects of discipline and desire” (ballet slippers, a saved antidepressant pill) — thus highlighting the plethora of ways in which objects affect us. But, as she writes in an e-mail, “You can play with the categories. Every essay has aspects that could put it in another category.”

“Finding them enriches us,” Turkle says about the objects. “It gives us a new kind of access to memory, a new way of talking about ourselves in very intimate ways that is somehow easier because it passes through something external.” As Turkle’s essayists prove anecdotally, objects can also function as a way of understanding someone else. Nathan Greenslit, a Harvard postdoctoral scholar and healthcare research consultant, writes about the noisy family vacuum cleaner, which consistently frightened his two-year-old daughter (“I think I probably first considered writing an essay about an antidepressant medication, but thought better of it,” he says via e-mail). He observed that when adults are startled, they “react by rationalizing, ‘Oh, it was just the blender.’ ” But his daughter, who didn’t yet possess this ability, confronted her fear by treating the vacuum cleaner as a human being, and talking to it. For Greenslit, the vacuum cleaner became a window into the mind of his child.

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