Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor

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Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Everything you ever didn't think to ask about everything you didn't think worth asking about, and so were not too afraid to ask...
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846682704

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...In which our author considers the smaller, less noticeable items in our lives. He finds such objects as sticky tape, combs and keys magical, because "we can do whatever we like to things, but magical things are things that we allow and expect to do things back to us. Magical things all do more, and mean more than they might be supposed to." Principally these are the little flotsam that wash up on our desks, the handy things we keep in our pockets and about our person, and never think about - wave about, flick about, fiddle with, but never think about.

It's a curious book. If I end up reading the philosophy of love I want to make it. Alain de Botton in an airport can make one want to live there too, and gain our own similar experience. But this didn't make me want to fondle, fidget with and think about buttons and keys - I didn't even succumb to the chapter on sweets. It certainly is a very entertaining look at the ephemera of our lives. There's surprising mileage in looking at all the phrases, slang and so on of cards and other whatnots, and the etymology of the relevant words and worlds.

Just to take cards - there's a host of semiology in them and in our intent to make everything about them both more slender and more powerful - until someone thinks to stick medical information on them. PIN numbers pin us down into our routines just as much as the pins that get their own chapter. Take glasses - perhaps unwanted things that you maybe never ever fully see while not using them. They can be unsightly, but then they can also be spectacles, and a mark of esteem. Where one ends and the other begins is not easy to say, just as for hankies and handkerchiefs. Certainly the Queen doesn't deign to wear either on our currency - but then the author's mug-shot shows him not using his either... They, like pipes, can add motion, punctuation and more into our speeches and our silent thinking.

Elsewhere we get keys - even Connor cannot be very sanguine about the keys in our drawers that we keep while having moved on from the locks they fitted, nor about the cases of people using one key on its own, forlornly wishing to be part of a bunch. There is little that seems beyond his powers, however - he knows of 80-year old essays on safety pins, some bizarre research into tablets from Poland, and he's probably our best guide around to the scientific history that goes into making the rubber band your postman left on your path this morning.

The charm of this book then is in uncovering such quirky elements from other quirky elements, those in our lives whose generic and individual history we will have ignored. All we care about our one hankie is that nobody else has used it, and about hankies in general? - well, all we probably need to ever know is here. Connor calls his essays 'meditations'. I see them as 'riffings' - extemporising and rifling through the corners of everyday life to come up with the genius hiding beyond our ken. I don't think they're best read all in one (or two spells, as I did for this review), but they're enlightening, entertaining and amusing, and make for a very singular volume of uncategorisable popular science, cum philosophy, cum trivia. Very recommended.

I must thank the publishers for sending me a review copy.

More obvious scientific advances can be seen in Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers by Stephanie Pain.

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