Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner & Miranda Critchley (edd) - review by Will Wiles

Will Wiles

Ode to an Ashtray

Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects


Reaktion Books 389pp £29 order from our bookshop

Far from running smooth, the path of technological progress bristles with dead ends and aborted possibilities. It is quite possible to spear yourself on these snapped-off futures. Around the turn of the century, enjoying the disposable income that came with my very first job, I decided to invest in a home music system. Naturally I opted for the most advanced and ostensibly future-proof technology then available, the MiniDisc, which combined the digital fidelity of the CD with the flexibility of the cassette. How pleased I was with my decision. About a year later, the iPod was released.

At least the MiniDisc gets a memorial in Extinct. Priya Khanchandani lovingly recounts its advantages and, more importantly, its failings (too expensive, lack of support from the recording industry) and misfortunes (to have come into being just before the MP3). But it can be hard to say goodbye. I still have my MiniDiscs; they were too expensive and are too permeated with effort to discard. ‘These are a comedy of my life,’ says the sculptor Richard Wentworth in his essay on slotted screwdrivers, as he imagines the note he will leave to his granddaughters when they come to inherit his collection. The electric screwdriver, which has a tendency to slip out of a slotted screw, has driven the Phillips head to supremacy. But Wentworth cannot forsake the simple haptic pleasure of driving in a screw using muscle power: ‘There’s that moment of the right slot to the right head, to the right depth, to the right pressure, that feeling of completion that is utterly bodily – and it doesn’t make a noise.’

Extinct comprises eighty-five essays on defunct objects, from arsenic wallpaper to the Zeppelin. The format does not immediately inspire confidence, suggesting the listicle and the hurried Christmas present, and readers might feel the phrase ‘a mixed bag’ or ‘hit and miss’ coming on. But Extinct turns out to

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter