In our consumer culture, we are constantly confronted with crowds of objects and with changing fashions in behaviour. The simulaneity and repetitiousness of the bombardment, the multiplicity of the things and the speed with which they reach their targets, serve to make them inscrutable to us, and exhausting in their apparent self-sufficiency and dynamism ... My project is to grab some of them as they hurtle by. I seize one of them at a time, hold it still, and look at it closely to see where it comes from and what it might be hiding. (p. xix)
Visser's Much Depends on Dinner -- subtitled 'The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal' -- is one of those books that I regularly give as a gift: her blend of history, sociology, anthropology and cookery, leavened with dry wit, engages me. In The Way We Are, a selection of her columns for Saturday Night magazine, she turns her attention to the paraphernalia of everyday life. Father Christmas ('he is obviously phallic, dressed in red, coming down the chimney, leaving a present in the stocking. Some analysts have suspected that he is, at the same time, pregnant'); the psychology of the blush; the fashion for stripes, whether vertical or horizontal, and the visual effects these produce; the avocado ('Indian claims for aphrodisiac powers in the fruit were hotly denied when it was first introduced ... the reputation is no longer thought by the industry to be a liability'); the history of the umbrella, which made me sad; synaesthesia; a discussion of Eskimo words for snow, and their usefulness; baths versus showers ...
Everything's footnoted: Visser (a classicist by profession, I believe) is not afraid to indulge her scholarly side, and -- for example -- discuss Seneca's satire Apocolocyntosis, in which the Emperor Claudius turns into a gourd, whilst examining the cultural history of the pumpkin. She writes about the enculturation of objects: that is, the ways in which, beginning as utalitarian items, they acquire meaning and a burden of folklore. And there's an immediacy to these articles, a sense of engagement: she invites us to examine our own clothing, our own habits; our laughing flinch at 'Bright-Eyed, Bushy-Tailed, Serves Six' (a discussion of why we don't eat squirrels) or the last time we blushed (at someone else's 'exposure') or the cloth we're wearing.
Fascinating, erudite and funny; the article format makes this the perfect book for dipping into, which is what I've been doing for months.