No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible,
your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.
—John Maguire

The world is too big today, so I close my pandemic journal after I’ve made my notes for the day, and head to various mudlarking Twitter accounts, marveling at the clay pipes, Roman pottery, and bits of this and that that turn up along the shores of the Thames. I never knew that clay pipes were only meant to be used a couple of times, then discarded. The world is too big, so I consider the thingy-ness of things—the talismans, tools, artifacts, toys, tchotchkes, souvenirs and trinkets I hold on my literal and mental wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities)—the objects that become odd, sparks to a page, simply by their juxtaposition to something unexpected.

In his introduction to the 2008 Best American Essays, Adam Gopnik writes that this kind of thinking can lead to writing that “takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia….and finds in it a path not just to a large point but also to an entirely different subject.”

Odd objects have life because we give it to them—toys are objects that spark imaginative play—like the cast iron doll furniture from the 1920s in a shadow box on my living room wall, which belonged to the grandmother who could have patented Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard. Whatever the intangibility of these qualities, the imagination and desire, must be held in the object, something tangible enough to drop on one’s foot.

I’m not convinced that the core of the odd object essay is story; I think it is purpose—and I want to go back to the taxonomy I’ve been working with, which does not hold that story is the foundation of nonfiction: in nonfiction, the author is the core, the foundation. “Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud,” Alexander Smith writes. “The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.”

The delight of an odd object essay is in noticing the friction between what is this, why is it here, what significance does it hold? The odd object essay always starts with this doesn’t make sense and this thing holds more than anybody would expect just by looking at it. Odd object essays, by their very nature, are almost exclusively driven by assay mode—the mind of the author, rather than narrative or lyric energy—simply because the object has no function, no purpose, without the writer’s mind. This makes a battered plastic keychain, which may be a memento—an object that evokes a memory, or a souvenir—an object that evokes a place/event, as useful a starting point. The keychain may lead us to memory, but that is not where the essay starts.

What makes an odd object essay work is the context the author creates on the page that takes an object from relatable (everybody’s grandmother has this object in their kitchen) to relevant: If I don’t know you, what is here to keep me thinking after I put these plastic Tupperware measuring cups back in the drawer? There’s no inherent value to the thing at the center of an odd object essay, even something as rare as Nicholas DelBianco’s “The Countess of Stanlein Restored,” about the restoration of a Stradivarius violin. The odd object essay thrives on what Chris Arthur calls “memory ambushes.” Ambushes, where one moment accidentally brushes up against another, creating new energy, new direction. Odd objects feed into Montaigne’s classic “what do I know?”—and how do I know it? Odd objects require context—they have histories, characters, biology, tire treads, allergies.

The spark of an object-as-conversation-starter is like the firing of a synapse, the shock of something out of context, like Cynthia Ozick’s teapot in “The Shock of Teapots,” a moment where the writer stops and feels compelled to say let me tell you about this thing I just realized. It’s the friction created by two moments, two thoughts, that shouldn’t exist next to each other, but do.

What is the sense work, the image work on the page that turns an object into experience? On the shelf behind my desk, a tiny Chanel No. 22 bottle with enough sludge in the bottom to remind me of nothing at all. I don’t associate its scent with anyone. But it’s a pretty bottle, so I keep it, but it tells me nothing about the world that I didn’t know before I opened the stopper.

In Tim Robinson’s “The Fineness of Things,” he writes, “It is not the specifics of such knowledge that astound me, but its quality of specificity, the fineness of detail with which the world records itself and in which its records can be read, through the optics and insights of various sciences.” For Robinson, whose best work is the cartographic essaying of the Aran Islands and Connemara, even the object of the map is not as simple as the thing, and I wonder about the map as a conversation starter, how it’s trickled down into W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps” and Julija Sukys’ “There Be Monsters,” in which she writes of the map on her office wall:

I’ve hung the map despite my husband’s warnings: “It’s in bad taste,” he says. “Macabre.” When colleagues pop their heads into my doorway, they instinctively grin up at it: it’s rare to see a document so large, so detailed, and so obviously handmade. But once their eyes settle on the block letters printed at the bottom right-hand corner of the map, they understand what they’re looking at: MASS GRAVE OF ALL WOMEN AND CHILDREN 3RD DAY IN ELUL-5701 SEPTEMBER 16TH 1941.

Odd object essays must tell the reader something about the world that we didn’t know before. It’s finding the universal in the specific, because, to quote the Hmong memoirist Kao Kalia Yang’s father, Bee: “The human life is individual, it is not unique.” The object at the center of an odd object essay becomes a focal point not just to a concept, a feeling, but how the author’s understanding of that feeling gives them new insight into the workings of the world. The odd object essay cannot hinge on “this tchotchke reminds me of my mother.”

Recently I listened to the Hoxne pepper pot episode of the BBC podcast “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” which veered so delightfully into the chemistry of what pepper does to food and the biology of how it reacts in the body, that I realized that an odd object is the center of an essay-web that causes both the writer and reader to question how many ways there are to know something, how many ways this object connects to filaments we overlook because they’re too fine to see, except in the right light?

At the Smithsonian, we can view objects that are important enough to be preserved, but for what purpose? Memory is faulty, subject to a thousand factors, and evidence—an object which shows that something exists or is true—holds no inherent value, because it is always subject to interpretation. I remember my first trip to Belfast and seeing the bright yellow of Samson and Goliath against that gunmetal sky, the giant cranes that built the Titanic still there, still strong, after more than a hundred years. Maybe objects like these exist as evidence that who we are now is not as advanced, not as superior, as we think we are. Abraham Lincoln’s hat, evidence that the man was more than a myth. Julia Child’s kitchen, evidence that we’re each physically unique and one size does not fit all.

Perhaps these odd objects are evidence of a larger humanity, evidence of cruelty, greed, love, ingenuity, a way of looking at the universe that’s never to be repeated because the planet is literally no longer aligned that way.

Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Find her on Twitter Instagram, and online at