nonfiction / review

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption by Katy Kelleher

I was so excited to read this book. It sounded tailor made for me and I’ve followed the author online for a long time. I love the history of objects and reading about our personal connections to them.

I just didn’t really enjoy it. I wish she had decided to write a memoir about her mixed feelings about these objects with just a tiny bit of history or done a really well-researched history book instead. Instead we get her sort of rambling about the history of the object without really delving in because she covers hundreds and even thousands of years in a handful of pages and then shoehorns in some connection to herself. I thought some of her examples and tangents were odd and not fleshed out enough.

For example:

In a single 20-page chapter she discusses: a friend’s story about her family in WWII era Germany, her own pre-WWII family’s immigration from Germany, her mother’s china collection, the fall of popularity of collecting sets of expensive dishes, china vs porcelain, the Silk Road, the possible cross border history of blue and white vases/dinnerware, Madame de Pompadour’s love of pink, the vegan refusal of bone china, the rise of the woman’s magazine and the middle class, Queen Victoria’s drug habit, the opium trade and the role of the British empire, how plates are made, the German love of porcelain and Himmler’s involvement in a porcelain factory, a recent Seattle ceramic artist who turned out to be a Holocaust denier, the desire for whiteness in dinnerware and elsewhere, doll faces and how they possibly influenced a feeling of white supremacy in the 18th century, her discomfort in discussing whiteness, the specter of Eva Braun’s tableware despite its “cottagecore” look, contrasts a restaurant plate and a chipped Fiestaware in a dorm room (a fairly expensive and collectible dish so I’m not sure why she used to to convey shabbiness?), the emotional associations with color, her personal collections and religion and “conservatism” around ritualized events, how most of her collection is from Europe and has hand-painted flowers that are not dissimilar to Eva Braun’s dish, she talks about how she could branch out into other dishware and how but she doesn’t want to, another woman’s newsletter and he thoughts around home and growing up in the LDS church, some discussion about mothers and the home. All of the chapters are like this.

It could have worked with some detail and some editing. I think each of these ideas could have been a book on their own. Instead, it ended up being a bit of a stream of consciousness mess. As the book stands it’s not really a full memoir or history of these objects and as a result fails to deliver. I felt like it was both bloated with facts and that I learned nothing of substance.

One thought on “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption by Katy Kelleher

  1. Pingback: What I read in December | Rachel Reads Books

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