One person’s junk is another person’s treasure–or so the saying goes. A new book, Significant Objects, looks at the phenomenon of the subjective value of products in a unique and playful way: by creating fictional histories of knickknacks to possibly increase their worth. It’s based on a witty Web experiment launched in 2009 by Rob Walker, contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and author of the book Buying In, and Joshua Glenn, an author and editor who specializes in semiotics.
The book, published by Fantagraphics, features 100 stories about random tchotchkes found at garage sales and other second-hand outlets, written by literary stars such as Jonathan Lethem, Curtis Sittenfeld, Neil LaBute, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, among others. The throw-away pieces, such as a kitschy ceramic bank shaped like a golf ball with legs, were then auctioned on eBay. Many saw their value go up with a fictitious description or narrative to give it (faux) context.
The writer Dan Reines, for instance, wrote about a coffee cup with a trompe l’oeil Post-it note on it that says “You always find happiness at work on Friday!” that originally cost 50 cents as a second-hand object. It then sold on eBay for $12.50 after it was associated with Reines’ story. The value went up astonishingly, even though Reines’ fictional piece gave it the context of the “Death Mug”–a vessel that, in the fictional tale, consistently brought layoffs and even actual death to those who drank booze from it at an office. Other entries riff off of the standard format of an eBay listing, like the made-up description for a “nutcracker with troll hair (or something),” which is exactly what this throwaway object is. It was originally purchased for one dollar and later sold on eBay for $14.50 with its fictional context.
So how and why does fiction help translate an object’s worth into one with higher value? To get insight, I spoke with Walker on the “economic experiment” of Significant Objects, as he and Glenn describe the Web site and the book–and what lessons designers, companies, consumers and novelists alike might learn from it. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.