Glass, Paper, Beans

Leah Hager Cohen, Author Broadway Business $22.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-47819-9
In sparkling, nimble prose, Cohen (Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World) recreates the story behind the ""object""-in this instance, glass, paper and beans, although the object could as well be a toothbrush or a nail-and people whose livelihoods depend on those objects, a history of how the objects came to exist as well as a social account of the laborers' relationship to them and the consumer's mostly unknowing relationship in the chain. She restores the singularity of the worker by presenting individuals: widowed, 59-year-old Ruth Lamp, a night supervisor at the Anchor Hocking glass factory in Lancaster, Ohio; 32-year-old woods worker Brent Boyd, whose $600,000 harvester is a great curiosity in the lumber community of New Brunswick, Canada, where he, his wife and their two-year-old daughter live; and 26-year-old Basilio Salinas, who owns his own parcela of coffee field in a cooperative in Mexico, where he lives with his wife and three children. Cohen's acumen in focusing on these specific people makes her journey and ours particularly pleasurable; she signals connections among commodities and geography and time, supply and demand, raw materials and market forces. Drinking coffee in her local coffee shop while reading the Boston Globe had set Cohen to ruminating about the links between her, her coffee glass, the coffee and the newsprint of her paper. In tracing each material to its source, she delves into history (we learn that toilet paper existed in ninth-century China), politics and mercantilism (she brings in Marx and Thoreau here), and she and we discern that there is an essence in objects. And this difficult, enormously satisfying book reminds us also that the monetary system created our commodity world, fetishizing consumerism, which strips objects of their identities. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
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