I have just finished reading Neil MacGregor’s excellent book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. MacGregor is the director of the British Museum, where all of his 100 objects can be found. The book is beautifully illustrated with photos of each of the objects and then some. It is based on a series originally done on BBC Radio 4.
If you have any interest at all in the history of mankind from 2,000,000 years ago (Olduvai stone chopping tool) to the present (solar-powered lamp and charger), this is a good book for you to lay your hands on. There’s a paperback version, but it doesn’t seem to have all of the illustrations in it so I recommend getting the hard cover version, which is published by Penguin (2010, $42.00).
For those interested generally in the subject of anthropology, this book is very, shall we say, digestible. It is written in bite-sized bits, I suppose to fit the original radio format. It offers a small but lucid glimpse into different times and places. One feels a whole lot smarter after reading this book, if I do say so myself.
The idea of using objects to talk about history, I find, is very effective. It seems to objectify a time and place in a very efficient manner, reminding the reader always that we are all part of the great human family that stretches back in time over 2,00,000 years.
I’ve been thinking about objects, the things we have, for a the past few weeks as I’ve watched the people in Calgary who were hit by the flood having to divest themselves of most of their possessions. I have heard it said before that we consumers are only intermediaries between the store and the landfill, and that we even pay for the privilege of being so. Never has this seemed so apparent as now.
A lot of people choose to surround themselves of a lot of things, a lot of objects. Looking at it when it’s all piled up, wet and soggy and smelly and misshapen, covered in river silt, house after house, street after street, it really does beg the question, “How much stuff do we really need?”
Be that as it may, I’m not criticizing anyone who has just survived a flood. It’s realy a very horrible experience and my heart goes out to all my neighbours who have had to endure this catastrophe. And yet, it’s probably safe to say that many of us in North America tend to have a lot of stuff, to the point where one could legitimately ask, “Do we possess our possessions or do our possessions posses us?”
I almost wonder if there’s a sense of liberation that comes from losing a lot of it, and whether people who have weathered this storm will choose to live in a more austere fashion in the future. Hell, maybe they’ll go back at it with renewed vigour and zeal, I guess we’ll find out. Time will tell.
On any account, between the book and the flood, I looked around my own apartment and asked myself what is really important here, and what isn’t. There’s an old after-dinner question that goes, “If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing with you, what would it be?” It is very telling about a person’s true nature as to how he or she answers that question.
And so, I wondered if it would be a useful exercise for me to look for not one but 10 (but not 100!) objects in my apartment that I could use to tell my own personal history, in the same manner in which MacGregor tells the history of the world with his 100 objects. So to that end I’ve been looking around my apartment the last couple of days, for the first time in my life taking a long, cold look at the things I surround myself with, asking myself what they have to do with me and my story, if anything at all.
The list I have come up with is quite surprising, even to me. So, what exactly is this list, you might ask? Well, dear reader, you have to wait for it. Because it’s my blog and I can do what I want to, tomorrow I will begin a series of ten pieces on ten objects in my apartment that I feel tell the story of my life. I plan on doing this in ten days. We’ll see if I manage to pull that off or not, given that I have no one other than myself to give me a hard time about deadlines.
I think this is an interesting project — I hope to others besides myself — and I hope you will check in and see what things I have on my list and what I have to say about them.
In the meanwhile, I encourage you to look around your place, at your stuff, and figure out for yourself how your own stuff reflects or even defines who you are.
Thanks for reading. Happy Canada Day! See you back here tomorrow.
Here’s Oscar Peterson with my favourite Canadian song of all time, eh . . .