For Joshua Glenn, a co-author of "Significant Objects," an object gains value and meaning when a story is added.
WEST ROXBURY, Mass. — For the last two decades, Joshua Glenn has been thinking deeply about things — nonfunctional stuff like tchotchkes and objects harvested from junk drawers — in zines and magazines, on websites he has produced or contributed to, in story anthologies he has edited and, most recently, in a curious literary and economic experiment called the Significant Objects project.
Glenn, a writer, editor and semiotic brand analyst, worked with Rob Walker, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine (which was not involved in their project), collecting all manner of insignificant objects, including snow globes, buttons and mysterious figurines, from flea markets and thrift stores. They paid no more than a $1.50 or so apiece and then asked writers like Luc Sante and Curtis Sittenfeld to create short stories around the objects.
Could their narratives add value to nearly worthless thingamajigs, he and Walker wondered. The answer, it turns out, was an emphatic “yes,” as the newly significant objects sold for as much as 2,700 percent of their value on eBay, in a round of sales conducted from 2009 to 2010. (The proceeds went to the writers and various nonprofits.)
As it progressed, the project gained steam in interesting ways. One week, Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, donated the contents of her junk drawer, and noted that the Significant Object stories might illuminate string theory (it’s complicated).
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Another week, objects foraged from Dead Horse Bay in New York City were “storified” and then auctioned off one a day. Copycat Significant Object projects began popping up, including one by a Canadian high school’s creative-writing class late last year. And buyers of the objects would add their own stories to those of the objects they had bought, in artwork, videos and blogs.
One such buyer is Molly Peck, a 37-year-old artist who lives in a minuscule two-room apartment in New York City with her boyfriend, a large yellow Lab and not much else. She bid on about 30 objects, and won four of them, she said recently, because, as she put it, “I’m a chronic empathizer and I wanted every object to get to at least $20.”
What she won — a “Necking Team” button with a story by Susannah Breslin for $36.88; a geisha bobblehead figurine with a story by Edward Champion for $56; a hair pick with a story by Robin Sloan for $13.50 and a gaucho tray with a story by James Reichmuth for $10.50 — she tucked into a drawer because her boyfriend is a strict minimalist and frowns on decorative objects. “We don’t even have a vase,” she said.
Eventually, Peck gave her winnings away. “But I have the memory of the experience,” she said. “That’s the whole thing. Instead of buying things, you are buying this intangible set of events.”
You would imagine the home of a guy like Glenn, 44, to be the antithesis of Peck’s apartment: layered with years’ worth of stuff, or at least the leftovers from his recent flea market raids. But the 1930s bungalow he shares with his wife, Susan Roe, a human resources consultant, and their two sons, ages 14 and 12, is largely thing-free.
The “Significant Objects” book, into which Glenn and Walker collected 100 of their favorite stories, is out this week (Seattle-based Fantagraphics, 256 pp., $24.99), and Glenn invited a reporter to his home on the occasion of its publication to investigate his own significant objects, such as they are, and to answer the question, “What the heck is a semiotic brand analyst, anyway?”
The bungalow is spare and tidy, with simple furniture (an Ikea sofa, a wooden bench, a painting or two) and clean surfaces. The refrigerator is bare of soccer schedules, children’s photos and magnets. Glenn and Roe will not be appearing on “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
“I’ve been reading way too many women’s magazines for a client,” Glenn said. “And I think this is what they’re saying: ‘Stress causes cancer. Clutter causes stress.’ So, basically, clutter causes cancer.”
One could make a case.
Still, Glenn does have treasures, some stored in a wooden box decoupaged with Elvis photos that Roe made years ago; others live in his office in downtown Roxbury. He had brought them together to make a few points. If you wonder why it’s so hard to clean the junk drawer, take heart in Glenn’s taxonomies.
“The way human beings attribute significance to objects hasn’t changed since we began having objects,” he said, fishing around in his box. “Even if we don’t identify ourselves as collectors, we are collectors of things. And things are collectors of meaning in various ways.”
True collectors, he added, don’t attach significance to individual objects; it’s the whole that matters. And hoarders attach significance to every object.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, Glenn said, unconsciously (or not) sorting our things — our meaningful things, that is, our nonfunctioning objects — into five categories.
Totems are from the natural world, like rocks. He brandished one with a white stripe. “These are supposed to be lucky, right?”
Idols are objects of contemplation, like those little Buddha figurines. He has one of the laughing variety. “I used to rub its stomach for good luck,” he said. “I don’t have a Buddhist practice. I don’t want to be alone with my howling mind. But I am attracted to Buddhist logic.”
Evidence is what he calls artifacts from a public event or a crime scene. Glenn’s example is his miniature bust of John F. Kennedy. “I think everything related to him is evidence,” he said.
Talismans are lucky objects.
And finally, fossils are things that bear “mute witness,” he said, “to a vanished way of life, which could be something from the 1920s or your own childhood.” He has a lot of things that fall into that category, including a plastic G.I. Joe medallion, a few toy soldiers and an orange Tonka dune buggy. He also collects vintage board games, comic books and paperbacks with the letter X in the title.
“I played with these way too long,” he said, meaning the toy soldiers. “You can probably tell I’m really interested in my childhood. I loved being a kid.”
His childhood, he said, was “fantastic, nearly feral and free-range.” (One of seven children, he grew up in two Victorian houses in a progressive neighborhood; his mother, a psychotherapist, and his father, an Episcopalian minister, divorced well, he said, and lived within two blocks of each other.)
He and Roe moved 12 times in as many years before they bought this house for about $371,000 in 2000. He had dropped out of graduate school in sociology and earned his master’s in teaching instead. Then he tried and failed to find work as a middle schoolteacher, and fell into a job as an editor at the Utne Reader, in Minneapolis, where he had moved with Roe when she was offered a job there.
Later, Glenn joined an early version of Tripod, the blog-hosting website originally intended as a lifestyle guide for his generation. But it was the blog hosting that took off, and when Lycos bought Tripod in 1998, Glenn was awarded stock options worth about $80,000, he said.
This cushion allowed him to focus on Hermenaut, an indie philosophy zine-turned-bound-journal that he had cooked up in the ’90s, which had a steady circulation of 5,000. (Articles included “Smells Like Teen Reification,” a takedown of Sassy magazine written by Glenn, and features that celebrated “outsider intellectuals” like Bruce Lee and Oscar Wilde.)
But when he was offered investment money from a friend who had AOL stock, just before the Time Warner merger, Glenn began doubling the frequency of his magazine in anticipation of a windfall. “You know how that turned out,” he said ruefully, adding that he went into serious credit card debt.
That’s when a friend hired him to help with a new marketing business, doing semiotic brand analysis. As Glenn explained it, he and his peers put on their Roland Barthes hats to analyze texts and images from the pop culture universe (everything from packaging and advertising to women’s magazines and contemporary films) and prepare reports for marketing companies on how a product or idea means. Not what, but how.
It’s a job uniquely suited to someone like Glenn, who has an appetite for intellectual shenanigans and is unbound by an academic career. Also, it pays well (enough so that he can work half the month for his marketing clients and devote the rest to his publishing ventures). He spent much of last week staring at photos of shirtless male celebrities, looking for meaning for a marketing company working for a maker of male grooming products. “I’m finding the signal in the noise,” he said bravely. “I’ve seen hundreds, no, millions of naked chests. I’m a little traumatized. Hugh Jackman is a complete throwback compared to most celebrities. He has a lot of hair, though it seems to be shaped a bit. And Channing Tatum, of course, is completely hairless.”
But he has cracked some codes, Glenn said, and he predicts a return of chest hair in the future. “Just a little. And in five ways. But I can’t tell you what they are. It’s a fine line. You’re splitting hairs, as it were.”
Meanwhile, the Significant Objects project continues. Bloggers at Design Observer and Wired were excited by the opening of the Museum of Innocence late last spring, and proclaimed its existence as proof that SO had become an honest-to-God meme.
The Museum of Innocence, to explain, started life as a novel, a tale of obsessive love written by Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel-winning Turkish author, and published in 2008. The novel’s protagonist collects evidence, as Glenn would say, of his short-lived, ill-fated affair — an earring, a purse, thousands of cigarette butts — along with fossils, to continue using Glenn’s taxonomies, from the 1970s, when the affair occurred, and creates a museum with them.
Using most of his $1.5 million prize money, Pamuk bought a town house in Istanbul and, in April, opened its doors to reveal an actual museum, complete with 4,213 cigarette butts in a vitrine, household objects, even the bed where the protagonist slept in the last years of his life.
For this author-turned-curator, the objects tell a story about his characters, and a larger story about Istanbul’s painful and incomplete metamorphosis into a modern Western city. By all accounts, the museum is well attended, proving, as Glenn and Walker’s social experiment continues to do, that stories add value in unaccountable ways.
There is one object Glenn saved from his childhood that is not a toy. It’s a battered plaster mask. As a teenager he plucked it from a high shelf when he was looking to swipe a switchblade his father said he had confiscated from a parishioner.
Instead, Glenn found what he decided was Baudelaire’s death mask. He knew that the poet Fanny Howe had owned the house, and he had it in his mind that the mask had belonged to her. For years, he said, it was the most significant object in his life and he hung it above every desk in every house he lived in, an “idol” to meditate on and draw inspiration from.
A few years ago, when he was putting together a book called “Taking Things Seriously” (75 tales of, you know, significant objects and how they got that way), he decided he would write about the mask. So he called his father. “And my father said, ‘1. It didn’t belong to Fanny Howe. 2. I have no idea where it came from. And 3. It’s not Baudelaire.’ “
Cue sound of dream deflating. Sometimes the best stories are fiction.
The project website: http://significantobjects.com/