Hood by Alison Kinney

This is the third that I’ve read in the Object Lessons series (Sock, Souvenir).

Kinney examines the hood’s sinister appearances in history: worn by executioners, torturers, and (not by choice) their victims; worn by the Ku Klux Klan; given as an excuse for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This last – the hoodie – was, for me, the most obvious application of ‘hood’ and the one I was most expecting (to what extent this was suggested by the cover, I can’t say), and none of these focal points surprised me. I was a little surprised to learn that the executioner and the torturer did not wear hoods til pretty modern times – our attribution of the hood to the medieval bad guys is a modern error (or, perhaps, a calculated strategy). But I was more surprised that Kinney’s hood is so consistently an image of violence. She mentions the hoods worn by professors, judges, and academics – the honorable hood – but only as a point of contrast.

In the opening pages, Kinney lists the hood’s uses: by “judges, athletes, rappers, torturers, politicians, and toddlers… to attend school, commute… go to war or protests, take a hike, walk the dog, ride the Maid of the Mist, or visit our grannies in the woods… coaches, firefighters, fishers, boxers, beekeepers, and Mark Zuckerberg… skaters, cosplayers, fetishests, presidents, and the entire Knowles-Carter family.” She apologizes: “Sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel to get car hoods, stove hoods, and Mount Hood.” This promise of exhaustivity is not carried through, however. I recall Sock, wherein Kim Adrian reached back to the origins – the invention of the sock. That part of the hood’s story is missing here. I guess Sock and Souvenir had conditioned me to expect a really broad, start-to-finish, far-reaching treatment, and that’s not what Hood does. Hood focuses on injustice, violence, death, and abuses of power. It’s an important story; I’m not necessarily against Kinney’s approach, but it’s not what I’d been expecting.

The other way in which this book differs from the others I’ve read is that Kinney, as narrator, as researcher, and as holder of opinions, was lacking from her narrative. It has long been a reading preference of mine to find the author in her work; in nonfiction, I find it essentially dishonest to act like an impartial observer or researcher, because there’s no such thing. In this book, in particular, because Kinney takes decided political stances on a variety of issues, I really felt the hole left by her absence. Let it be said that I agree with her politics. But I regret that she didn’t reveal something of herself in stating them. I think it would have strengthened the book.

I’m interested to learn that the Object Lessons series takes more varied forms than those I’ve already encountered. I think I prefer the other model: the exhaustive, whimsical, present-narrator one. But Hood has much to offer, including a strong indictment of capital punishment, a chilling glimpse into Abu Ghraib, and a discussion of the black bloc of protesters at the Seattle WTO meeting and beyond.


Rating: 7 images.

Souvenir by Rolf Potts

Another from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series to follow Sock, which so delighted me.

And this book only deepens my feelings about objects, and about this series. Perhaps what I love most about Souvenir–even more than the enormous wealth of history, theory, and cultural trappings Potts has researched and illuminated for me–is its meta-ness, the fact that it’s about objects functioning wholly as objects, as ciphers or representatives of more. This little book has inspired me immensely.

Potts, a travel writer, brings his own souvenirs and their stories to this study. He begins by defining ‘souvenir’ for the book’s purposes: “objects that are collected for personal reasons during the course of a journey.” Academic researchers, he writes, have split souvenirs into five categories. “Piece-of-the-rock” items are physical fragments of the travel destination or experience itself: rocks, sticks, flowers; ticket stubs and emptied bottles that were purchased full. “Local products” are just that; and these first two categories pre-date a tourism industry creating them purpose-made. Next, “pictorial images” (postcards, posters); “markers” (“which includes T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other products branded to the location”); and “symbolic shorthand,” which refers to recognizable images: the Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Astrodome.

Potts moves through categories and experiences and controversies: for example, soldiers bringing home souvenirs of war (including body parts and stolen antiquities), or the commercialization of disaster (New York’s September 11 Museum did not receive federal funding, and so raised money by selling 9/11-themed umbrellas, key chains, tote bags, and cheese plates). He examines the concept of authenticity, and how we grade it. Is a terra-cotta jug equally authentic when made for a tourist market as when made for carrying water? What if the materials, methods and final product are identical but for intended use? In other words, what and who confers authenticity? He relates tales of villages that put on an act of “primitive” “authenticity” for the tourists (wearing traditional clothing and carrying spears for the photographs), then return to blue jeans and television sets once the tourists have moved on. Which of these more authentic: the appearance that agrees with a Westerner’s preconceived notion, or the way modern African villagers really live?

I really appreciated thinking about an object’s transition from souvenir to museum piece, from private and associative meanings to public and interpretive ones, in which (I offer) something is lost and something is gained. And you know I especially enjoyed the concept of Wunderkammern (German, ‘wonder chambers’), small museum-like rooms maintained by individuals. This puts a word to an idea I’ve been writing about, obsessing over, and building for myself over the last semester.

I get carried away listing the ideas that sparked my mind. Postcard as “part object, part information.” Attribution of authenticity as a form of cultural appropriation, with all the usual arguments to be made: that culture is nothing but an accumulation of appropriations. Different cultural definitions of what a souvenir is, is about, is for: that the Japanese fulfill established expectations with souvenirs, that they seek not creativity, not “authenticity” in the way that many Westerners define it, but the performance of a formula: green-tea-flavored sweets from Kyoto, apple-flavored pastries from Aomori. My imagination is alive.

For years, I brought a dear friend pieces of the natural landscape when I visited beaches all over the world: a shell from Scheveningen, sand from southern California, rocks from Bellingham Bay. I used to work with a woman who collected feminine hygiene products from various countries and cultures, marveling at the variety of ways we deal with menstrual blood. Knowing these friends’ preferences made them easy to “shop” for. When I collect souvenirs, for myself or for others like this, as gifts, I note (as Potts has), that in the end it’s about the story that the thing reminds me of, much more than it is about the thing itself. Certainly, we can do workaday shopping while traveling: at an outdoors shop in Ireland I bought a sleeping bag and some hiking pants that are just those utilitarian things, although I don’t forget where I got them, either. But these are not “pure” souvenirs. Pure souvenirs are about narrative. “Everyone who collects souvenirs ends up creating these object-narratives, which resonate with private meanings no written autobiography could ever achieve.”

I can already see that I’m in danger of investing in every book in this series.

Like Sock, Souvenir is a mixture of personal essay (Potts’s own travels, his own souvenirs and stories), history, anthropology, and so much more. The object-as-object subject here was especially close to my own heart, although I venture that Potts indulged in a little less poetry and whimsy than Adrian did. At any rate, I’m in love, and hungry for more. I can’t recommend highly enough these tiny little books that open enormous worlds, through everyday things.


Rating: 9 masks.

Sock by Kim Adrian


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


Sock! What a treat! I know I just posted some predictions for best books of the year, but we have a new contender. This was a wildly fun, engrossing little volume.

Sock is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which appeals to me for reasons I assume are obvious now, after this increasingly object-obsessive semester. When I found out about the series, I exercised restraint and purchased only three books: Sock, Hood, and Souvenir.

Kim Adrian’s task here was to write about the sock. What is a sock, what is its job in the world, where did it come from, what is its significance? You know, just the basics. It’s a remarkable ambition in the first place, for any object (others in the series include Burger, Shopping Mall, Eye Chart, Tree, Cigarette Lighter… as well as the less object-like Silence and Doctor). To quote one of the book’s blurbs:

The Object Lessons series achieves something very close to magic: the books take ordinary–even banal–objects and animate them with a rich history of invention, political struggle, science, and popular mythology. Filled with fascinating details and conveyed in sharp, accessible prose, the books make the everyday world come to life. Be warned: once you’ve read a few of these, you’ll start walking around your house, picking up random objects, and musing aloud: ‘I wonder what the story is behind this thing?’ (Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From and How We Got to Now.)

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I didn’t.

So, the sock. Adrian’s table of contents offers an introduction and three sections: “Socks and evolution,” “Socks and desire,” “Socks and industry,” followed by a postscript: “Instructions for darning a sock.” (The back-of-book blurb begins, “Kim Adrian’s Sock is the darndest thing,” and that gave me FITS.) Adrian acknowledges the weirdness of her project. She can’t really account for her interest in socks, except that they are “intimate and essentially domestic,” and the domestic has always appealed to her. She usually writes about personal subjects, she tells us (“personal essays, memoir, that sort of thing”), and figured socks would fit in, because they are personal, in the sense that we wear them against our skin and they smell of us; but in fact this was a wildly wide-ranging research project. To paraphrase Johnson’s blurb, above, this book wanders through human anatomy and evolution, world history, politics, sex, and industry. If Adrian is fixated on domesticity, I am fascinated by trivia, such as (on page 9) the fact that we get our understanding of when humans first began wearing clothing from the study of lice. Textiles are perishable; but the evolution of specialized lice species, and their development into head lice, pubic lice, and body lice respectively, allows archaeologists to track textile development. This fact made me exclaim joyfully aloud, and I got to read the passage to a roomful of brewery employees. We were in a sensory class about the history of yeast species, so it’s all related, after all.

Adrian moves on to human anatomy and our unique position as vertically aligned bipedal creatures, its effect on our sexual practices and the way we walk, balance, the importance of the big toe, and much more. Skeletal structure has much to do with socks. Then there is the history, of course, of socks: from hay stuffed in a shoe-like cage, to woven foot wrappings, to fitted and knitted socks. She touches on the Industrial Revolution, delayed by Queen Elizabeth’s denial of a certain patent, which if granted, Adrian speculates, might have moved that Revolution up by some two centuries, and “what strange wormhole of alternate reality we might have tumbled down” in that case! Next we have sock and foot fetishes (the latter properly not a fetishism but a partialism), and sex; Jung and Freud, and the art of Egon Schiele, an Austrian Expressionist who left the feet off many human subjects but put socks on his trees. Finally, the sock industry takes us into concepts of fast fashion and slow fashion (a sort of throwback movement that depends on surpluses of both time and money). Here Adrian returns to an earlier concern with knitting socks, something she’s tried and not much succeeded at; she has great respect for those who do knit socks. Then the promised primer on darning.

All this in under 120 pages, and every moment of it was a delight to read, in Adrian’s mildly self-deprecating, often humorous, but absolutely serious-about-socks prose.

Some of my personal highlights on this wild ride included learning that Ned Ludd–he of the Luddite Rebellion–was a stocking maker, and started his movement by smashing two stocking frames in Nottingham. Did y’all know that? Also Adrian’s attention to words: ‘mundane’ (as in socks) comes from the French mondaine, or ‘of this world,’ and links us back to ‘pedestrian,’ as in Latin ped, as in foot. And ‘prosaic’ from ‘prose’ comes from Latin provorsus, which is pro– (forward) and vorsus (turned), as in oriented in forward-facing fashion, as in walking. Can’t make this stuff up, folks. Or, did you know that our feet possess even more nerve endings than our genitals?

I feel like I’ve written half as many words now as Adrian put into her whole book, this slim little marvel of trivia and attention to the overlooked. I am reminded of Mark Doty’s devout study of small details, his appreciation that “in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.” In other words, this book was a near-religious experience for me. I can’t wait to read more Object Lessons.

I can’t believe I’m doing it for the third time this year already, but here we are…


Rating: 10 stitches.
%d bloggers like this: