Who says serendipity is dead? While I was jogging around my neighborhood yesterday, my run was interrupted by one of my favorite things to stumble upon—a box of books being thrown out. This happenstance allows me to (1) acquire several more books of marginal relevance to me for the nearly always margin-defeating cost of free and (2) believe there is some sort of destiny in my reading and them and extracting what I can extract from them, all while (3) feeling like I’m performing a noble act of unconsumption, resuscitating something old and avoiding an unnecessary new purchase. If we need to be constantly rearranging our belongings to be continually reaffirming our ever-unstable self-concept, why not do it through acquisitive acts outside the economy?
Anyway, at this particular treasure trove (I guess if I used Twitter I would have immediately posted the address so all my non-existent friends in the neighborhood could go check it out?), my attention was arrested particularly by one spine, which read “QUANT by QUANT.” What was this? Was it the anonymous confessions of a hedge fund manager? Not exactly. It turned out to be this:
Very mod. Inside are a bunch of pictures of Mary Quant cutting clothes and looking at her own handiwork through shop windows. I also got a copy of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, a book about teen angst called Suburban Youth in Cultural Crisis, and this book, which I have read before but whose cover I find irresistible:
I read this book a few years ago mainly because I liked the title and found it almost impenetrably strange. If I remember right it is a Heavenly Creatures-like story of girls acting out against the patriarchy in their own misguided way. (I hope that is not too glib.) I’ve probably owned three copies of it in the apst, all of which I have given away—this is my fourth. I will probably tear the front off and use it as a bookmark.
Anyway, as I left the box behind, I immediately began to do exactly what I frequently complain about in other posts—draw conclusions about what sort of person could possibly have owned this strange concatenation of books. Is it someone who took a feminist literature course and is only now getting around to casting off the books? Does that mean the person’s feminism has waned, or that the person has moved beyond the need to keep books like The Beauty Myth on the shelf as proof? Was this person a child of the suburbs who had resettled in the city (like me), or was this person just vaguely interested in a 1970s perspective on an evolving social concern? Most important, perhaps: Was this person a mod? A rocker? A mocker? Or were they someone like me who saw this book in a thrift store and thought it a kitschy artifact? What are people going to think of me when I throw it away?
It’s easy to see how this mode of thinking reinforces itself and generates a low-grade cultural paranoia. It’s easy to let oneself off the hook and say, Oh, it’s human nature to perform such analyses and typecastings, as well as to use objects to define ourselves, but it seems ultimately more fruitful and hopeful to wonder what about our current society invites and provokes this sort of thing, which seems to trap our identities in things to a degree that seems unprecedented.