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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Really Useful* (*The origins of everyday things)

Reviewed: December 27, 2002
By: Joel Levy
Publisher: Firefly Books
240 Pages, $24.95

While one might wonder why a book on such a lightweight subject should have been assembled in such a quality package. Really Useful boasts a sturdy trade paperback construction, with french fold covers, heavy paper, full page colour plates. In short, it is a coffee table book recast in end-table dimensions. That’s a good thing, though. I found this book sat around in the living room for about a month while I was browsing though it, and a book needs to be sturdy to last that long in an area where it will get shuffled around, used as a coffee cup coaster and generally have to bear the weight of living.

Joel Levy contends that a lot of the everyday objects about us have long histories, “dating back to the dawn of civilization and beyond, and their development often follows a pattern: invented by the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians, perfected by the Greeks and Romans, lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Middle Ages, mechanized and perfected by the Victorians and mass-produced in the 20th century.”

Possibly one of the best examples of this thesis can be found in the modern lock, which Levy traces to two ancient systems, one invented by the ancient Egyptians and the other by the Romans. Today’s Yale type locks combine both systems.

Another good example would be coffee, the use of which dates back to the Turks in 575 AD. The basic method of putting the crushed beans right into the water (like using loose tea) went pretty much unchallenged until the 16th and 17th centuries, and the percolator itself didn’t come along until 1818 and the ancestor of the currently most popular type of coffee maker seems to have been invented by a German housewife in 1907.

Not all the items in the book have this sort of a history, though, but they do have in common the fact that they are often used and little thought about. Just glancing around my desk, for instance, I find myself looking at objects examined by Levy in this book: stapler, scotch tape, paper clips, camera, post-it notes, scissors, the telephone and so on.

Move to the kitchen and the list grows: the pedal trash can, refrigerator, toaster, paper and plastic bags, Tupperware, kettle, tea bags, coffee maker, sliced bread, etc.

In fact the indoor section of this book is by far the largest, demonstrating our tendency to come up with nifty labour saving devices for our caves.

There is a section on the outdoors as well, but it takes up only the last 42 pages. That means there’s probably room for someone to produce a sequel.

My major complaint with the books would be the lack of photo captions. From the author’s biography this would seem to be a British production. As a result some of the products shown have unfamiliar shapes and configurations. It would be nice to know if they are early models or simply variations caused by differences in national styles.

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