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  • That Thing on the Shelf:The Book as Artifact in Novels by Patrick MacGill and Pádraic Ó Conaire
  • Andrew Gothard

Unlike their counterparts of a century or even a few decades ago, today’s students often see libraries not as collections of physical books, but rather, as repositories of easily accessed digital information. Over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult to get my first- and second-year composition and literature students to actually go into the library stacks and encounter what an old professor of mine called “the eros of research”: the physical act of sifting through dusty tomes, and the joy that comes from a new discovery, waist-deep in bound volumes. As a joke, I have taken to telling students that the stacks are full of “these things called books, which are like the Internet made from a tree.” Though I recently discovered I first heard this joke in a Family Guy episode, the line’s electronic origin does not diminish its intended effect of reminding my students that digital is not always synonymous with better, especially in the realms of research and scholarship. In my own case, however, this light-hearted quip also reaffirms the book-object’s primarily physical nature—a reminder that is deeply needed, and particularly so in literary studies; scholars often become so deeply engaged with the content of books that they forget about the importance of a book’s physical presence, especially among groups for whom book-objects may not be as readily available as they are in the typical university library. In a world full of e-readers, iPads, and PDFs, I often think of books only through their plots, characters, or even time periods, and completely ignore the physical presence that a Collected Shakespeare or well-thumbed copy of War and Peace can have upon the senses.

The cultural weight of objects within social groups—weight that often exists distinctly apart from the object’s original purpose or valuation—has long been a focus of cultural theory. In his seminal essay, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Igor Kopytoff asserts that objects have many biographies, each corresponding to different spheres of exchange, and that commoditization itself “is best looked upon as a process of becoming rather than as an all-or-none state of [End Page 105] being.”1 In the same volume, Arjun Appadurai re-emphasizes this point, when he states that objects do not remain in a single sphere of commoditization, but can, at will, be “moved both into and out of the commodity state.”2 The implication of these arguments is that objects have social lives of their own. They can connect to different parts of the cultures in which they exist with or without human interaction and agency.

This acknowledgement leads later to what John Robb has called the “extended object,” which participates in “the elusive activeness of material culture.” Examining the spatial and temporal influences of cultural objects, Robb concludes that “the effective agency of a material thing … depends partly on how the people affected understand and feel about it as an object.”3 This concept of the “extended” object refers to the social and cultural tendrils that objects send out through society, based upon their status not simply as representations of culture, but also as symbolic containers and producers of cultural meaning. Susanne Küchler puts it more succinctly when she argues that all produced objects “partake of intentional and systematizing thought, and potentially serve as vehicles of knowledge, as threads of thought that bind things and people via things to one another.”4 Cultures are not bound together simply by people, but also by the things that people make and exchange.

Objects, however, do not just reflect the social codes of the society in which they are created; they also actively produce such codes through their mere existence. Specifically, the extended object has particular relevance to the idea that objects can symbolically produce new social codes by existing within a particular social space. In his study of the tiputa garments in Samoan Christian culture, Nicholas Thomas argues that because tiputa were essentially constructed for a new Christian presence in Samoa, “these...


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pp. 105-120
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