Excerpted from Francine Prose‘s review of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, as it appeared in Harper’s Magazine.
We all start out as animists, as toddlers vaguely uncertain about whether our beloved doll or pull-toy puppy might be a living being. When I was a child, my favorite cartoons were those that played to that confusion, films in which toasters or teapots or slippers sprouted legs and faces and revealed their true natures as menacing agents of mayhem and chaos.
In time, we learn to distinguish the creature from the object, and, later, consumer society conditions us to detach ourselves from our stuff so effectively that we can dedicate ourselves to the perpetual quest for nicer stuff and embrace the necessity of regularly exchanging older models for newer ones. But some vestige of the child remains, evidenced by the tenacious hold material things have over us, as objects of desire and, more mysteriously, as personal mementos and totems—as clues to our secret selves, and as signposts along the circuitous route that has taken us from the past into the present. I’ve come to think that the first cartoonist who sketched a threatening kitchen appliance or rebellious shoe might have experienced a recent confrontation with a desk drawer crammed with old letters, business cards, canceled checks, and unlabeled keys defiantly daring their owner to discard them. Objects survive because we need them, or because we are convinced that we need them. The unreconstructed animist will see a Darwinian triumph in the rapidity with which a crumpled boarding pass evolves into an all-important and indispensable detail in the narrative of some meaningful chapter in our lives.