Grossman, Anna Jane. Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By.

NY: Abrams, 2009.

I have a bright adolescent granddaughter who can’t imagine there was ever a world in which music came from flat plastic discs, or that telephones tethered you to the wall, or that a flashlight was too large to dangle from the zipper of your bookbag, or that car windows once had to be cranked up and down by hand.

She only knows about passenger trains from books, and while she’s very fast at a keyboard, she has real difficulty writing anything more than her signature in cursive. Of course, I’m of an age to remember when telephone exchanges had actual names, and the switch to digit-dialing took some adjustment. I own a well-thumbed dictionary and thesaurus — printed on paper, that is, not accessible by right-clicking — and I still wear an analog wristwatch.

Grossman got to thinking about all these things, and about the ever-increasing pace of change (a variant of Moore’s Law seems to apply to everyday life), and she’s put together this collection of ruminations on some 130 common things and routine actions and events that are vanishing from the world, or which have already disappeared just in the last decade or so. Some things, like the absence of automobile cigarette lighters, are obvious when you think about them — but when was the last time you encountered a laugh track on a first-run TV series? Even though I’m an “early adopter” in most respects (I got my first home computer, a TRS-80 Model III, in the early 1980s), I’m also deeply interested in cultural and material history, and I regard myself as observant, so I was perhaps a little relieved that there weren’t many entries in this volume that were new to me. (Though I confess, I hadn’t noticed the disappearance of diving boards from public pools.) But I suspect that, to most college students, say, much of the book will be a revelation. My only complaint, really, is the occasional snarky superiority of Grossman’s prose, which is possibly a reflection on her own obvious youth. And there are several unintentionally laugh-inducing sentences that should lead her to rely less on her own right-click spell-checker and depend instead on an old-fashioned dictionary.

Published in: on 21 April 2013 at 5:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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