“The Story Becomes the Thing of Value”: Significant Objects Launch at The Strand

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1. Josh Glenn getting all freakonomics on the floor of The Strand. 2. Mathilde Billaud, a reader; B. Walker, a booklover, also; Dan Fox, a writer.

The collection of rare books housed on the third floor of The Strand sits like an above-ground literary catacomb of sorts, signaling the sort of dusty importance that comes with a “Please Do Not Touch” sign. But for one evening, the attention turned from first-edition Faulkners to a different kind of significant object: the 100 thrift-store finds acting as muses for the stories collected in Significant Objects, co-edited by Josh Glenn and Rob Walker. The two were literary scientists at the reading, presenting the project’s history and experimental hypothesis that led them to begin it. Would the value of a mundane object increase depending on the history it’s been given? They started with thrift stores, collecting forgotten trash and treasures that they then offered as prompts for the participating writers — nearly 200 by the third volume of stories. To find out what a well-spun yarn could do for a plain ball of yarn, the editors went to that famous online auction site and offered the stories as item descriptions, which, editor Josh Glenn noted, made them the first literary magazine ever to be published on eBay.

1. Sherri Wasserman, designer; Rob and Emma Tourtelot, friends of the editors and contributors. 2. Rob Walker, y’all.

Seven writers appeared at The Strand to read their object histories: short stories, letters, and cold appeals to imaginary buyers. Josh and Rob supported with interjecting commentary, offering up percentages and charts like a modern-day, Power-Point band of traveling salesman. First was Jason Grote, whose dome ball doll had witnessed the sad fates of various owners, and now issued a plea from The Salvation Army: “an ossified part of the store where the occasional board game or ski vest might move, but which mostly enjoyed a dusty, purgatorial paralysis” to be spared the same mummified end. Says the doll, into the eBay ether: “I want to be able to see you through my dusky glass.”

1. Rob Agredo, writer and contributor to the book (poolball lighter); Susan Roe, wife of co-editor Josh Glenn; Kara Lynch, visual artist and friend. 2. Matthew Sharpe reads; the sad mule figurine tries to look out from the PowerPoint screen.

Mimi Lipson read next. The object of significance: a vintage mug stamped with the waves of Old Glory from 70s fashion house, Halston. Donning black sunglasses and a disaffected manner, Mimi gave a “day-in-the-life” type of chronicling, written as two separate letters from a famous pop-art icon, whose musings — “Bianca’s ass is really getting too wide for Halston” — felt like a tribute and a trashing, but a resurrection in the best way possible.

1. Annie Nocenti. 2. Shelley Jackson on the crumb sweeper.

Meditations on art and existentialism followed from Matthew Sharpe, whose narrator — “the selling person”, “the artist” — could have fooled anyone into thinking they’d accidentally let a real-life person into the book’s pages. I don’t know any mule figurine sculptors, and Matthew made me realize how seriously unfortunate that is. The most unconventional object to share the PowerPoint screen was a crumb sweeper, which Shelley Jackson brilliantly propped into a pulp-fictiony scene involving a werewolf and illicit acts in a park. Afterward, I wanted to both wash my hands and cover my face with them.

1. The man, “the muse,” the maker of fake-histories, Ben Greenman. 2. Luc Sante reads.

Ben Greenman, who Josh and Rob referred to as “the muse” of the project (contributing three pieces in total), played the part of bumbling history professor, mincing dates and divining gross emphasis on the use of quotations, all to hilarious effect. From the life of a smiley face coffee mug, Greenman plucked a faux-thesis, covering semantics, cinema, surrealism, and dentistry, and in doing so, uncovered the slippery texture of historic fact that makes playing around with it so fun.

Following the important-moments-in-history trend was a salt lick… a bust of JFK. I didn’t think it could it be possible to assign this object any greater curiosity than it already had. But it was, and Annie Nocenti delivered it. “I refuse to be one of those biddies who dies in clutter,” her 80-year-old narrator grumbles “my clutter is for sale.” The tiny turns in her flash fiction were unexpected and awesome: “Turns out salt licks are cosmic, from some divine cow of Norse mythology.” Yes, I thought, I’d buy that.

Luc Sante read last; a ball of flannel, the final act of the show-and-tell-come-variety hour. As the ball rolls tirelessly through time: the death of a friend, the accumulation and shedding of jobs, lovers, cars, homes, we sense an unraveling, until it rises phoenix-like out of the debris and ashes of the narrator’s last decimating loss. The non-fictional ball was bought for $1.50, and later sold on ebay for $51. Numbers like those are impressive, even more so when you acknowledge how a story like Sante’s must have affected those online bidders. This was the best part of the experiment, Rob shared, “the stories become the things of value, all on their own.”

***

— Karina Briski is a writer, online and in person. She currently lives here, and in Brooklyn.

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