Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 165 (7/18) -- Obsolete by Anna Jane Grossman

Comments about the pace of change over the past century -- or half-century, or generation, or decade, or presidential administration, or TV season -- being ever quicker and quicker have been cliches for nearly as long as the period of time they're talking about, and have nearly lost all informational content in the process, becoming almost as bland and meaningless as "hot in here, isn't it?" It's still possible to wring some interest out of the flickering parade of ever-changing stuff, but the focus needs to be on specifics.

Luckily, Anna Jane Grossman is entirely specific in Obsolete, an alphabetically-organized collection of things she considers gone and forgotten -- and I'll get back to her sometimes parochial idea of what's obsolete later -- from "Adult Book Stores" to "Writing Letters," with stops along the way at "Boom Boxes," "Landlines," "Getting Lost," and "Doing Nothing at Work." Some of the entries have only a quick, arch paragraph about the lost concept or object, written as if we've never heard of it, but a third to a fourth of them have longer, discursive entries -- short essays about what that thing meant to society, or to Grossman herself, or (sometimes) to another person that I suspect she reported on for some other gig and is repurposing here.

Obsolete leaps from superseded technology -- Manual Typewriters, Polaroids, Rolodexes, Video Stores, Blackboards, CDs, Dial-Up Modems -- to social concepts -- Hyphenated Last Names, Men Treating, Miss (and Mrs.), Eating for Pleasure, Secretaries, Traditional Names -- to things that many of us would be surprised to discover Grossman has wished into the cornfield -- Aging, Bald Spots, Body Hair, Cash, Comb-Overs (it's remarkable how many of these have to do with hair, by the way -- one can make wild surmises about Grossman's social circle, if one is so inclined), Getting Lost, Landfills, Mail, Meetings, and Privacy. Since everything is organized alphabetically, and since Grossman has a quirky sense of what's obsolete -- one begins to suspect that she's willing to consider something gone if she can think of something pithy, humorous, or thought-provoking to say about it, and can argue that it's less prevalent among people she knows than it used to be at some arbitrary past date -- Obsolete is never boring, though a reader may find himself moving rapidly from "Oh, I remember that" to "everyone in my neighborhood still does that" to "say what?" as he turns the pages.

It's an amusing book to poke through, though it does end up feeling much too narrowly focused on things that youngish urban women used to notice when they were even younger, and now don't see as often, rather than diving into really obsolete things, like telegraphs, key parties, phonebooth stuffing, and the original kind of computer dating. There's a slightly lost opportunity there -- or, to look on the bright side, there's now ample scope for Grossman to write a sequel, with even more obscure and forgotten social customs, pastimes, and gadgets. Obsolete is a lot of fun as long as you don't take it too seriously.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Bettie Serveert - Deny All
via FoxyTunes

1 comment:

Rutila said...

I debated against the obsolescence of body hair for an event connected with Obsolete. Here's my argument.

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