RUTH QUIBELL The Promise of Things. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Ruth Quibell’s The Promise of Things offers a pathway to ‘an intelligent life with things’.
We’re surrounded by things. Our own things, other people’s things, necessary things, beloved things, things we cannot wait to be rid of. Our heads are filled with dancing visions of things – things to meet our immediate needs, and those on our ‘maybe one day’ list, our ‘if I win the lottery’ fantasies.
An incredible proportion of our lives is devoted to thinking about, acquiring, caring for and discarding things. The pervasive marketing campaigns that fuel materialism promise that contentment can be found in the mere purchase of things, but this seems rare in practice. For that reason, Ruth Quibell asks, wouldn’t we benefit from deeper attention to our relationship with things?
Blending memoir with journalism and her insight as a sociologist, Quibell’s first book is a collection of short essays. Each essay takes a particular object as its focal point – a chair that belonged to painter Henri Matisse, a stone picked up on a Mediterranean holiday, a pair of stuffed rabbits Quibell knitted for her children. Throughout, she draws on the thinking of fellow sociologists, as well as psychologists, philosophers, futurists, activists and even a geographer, to frame her experiences with things, as well as with illness, motherhood, and modern life.
Neither a celebration of materialism nor an argument for minimalism, The Promise of Things is instead a meditation on our relationships with the things around us, one that offers a pathway to what its author describes as ‘an intelligent life with things’.
Materialism is a defining driver of modern Western life. Is anyone surprised to learn that the average woman of the 1930s owned nine outfits, whereas today’s average woman owns 30? As Quibell notes:
Critics of materialistic values argue that the hungry acquisition of things is individually destructive and founded upon a socially pathological ideology … We’re struggling to keep on top of the things we’ve bought. Beyond blithe indifference or cynical acceptance, how might we do things differently? How can we respond to the failure of materialism’s promise?
She doesn’t believe extreme minimalism is the answer: ‘wholesale purging might be better seen as a briefly cathartic but inarticulate scream, rather than a liberation’. As well, she is suspicious of the popular KonMari decluttering method, which instructs disciples to surround themselves only with objects that ‘spark joy’. Joy, after all, can be fleeting.
Instead, Quibell guides us to think with greater depth about the multifarious relationships we form with things. Our things can bring freedom, can boost our mood and provide comfort. They can also bring crushing disappointment, particularly when we imagine the person we will be when we one day acquire a certain thing – a brown velvet jacket, in Quibell’s case – only to discover the thing is just as we envisioned, but we are unchanged. Pinning our hopes for ourselves on coveted objects ‘lends our ideals a hint of tangibility’. She offers advice for those whose hopes have been let down by their coveted objects:
Instead of running from failure and becoming trapped within a cycle of wanting, buying and later discarding without end, we can explore our failed objects. What nebulous future self drew us to this ideal object in the first place?
Quibell is, in her gently contemplative way, full of such useful advice. Certain events in our lives drive a need for things: a new baby, of course, even a new pet, but also, for example, an injury. As Quibell says, ‘a body unexpectedly transformed changes our relationship to the objects we live among’. She suggests how we might better go about choosing things (understanding ourselves as maximisers, who seek the best of the best, or satisifiers, who are happy with ‘good enough’, is a start). She argues, in beautiful turns of phrase, for the appreciation of the ordinary and functional. And she concludes that the renaissance of handmade items signals not only their intrinsic value but our own values beyond the market as well.
As befits a book about things, The Promise of Things is a beautiful object in itself, a slim paperback with a soft matte finish, a cover image of a wooden knick-knack shelf, and a vibrant design with enlivening cover flaps. It is a delight to hold as much as it is a delight to read.
Quibell summarises that, unlike our objects:
[we possess] … the capacity to think, feel and reflect with honesty on our lives, hopes and goals, and the roles that objects can play in them. And that, I strongly suspect, might mean putting in the work of thoughtful attention to those things that speak to our life as a whole.
The Promise of Things succeeds in providing a path for such thoughtful attention.
Ruth Quibell The Promise of Things MUP 2016 PB 277pp $27.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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