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Culture and things

The history of “things” which have changed our lives and marked a change in direction in individual, social and manufacturing culture, all packed into a book.

Culture is also shaped by small things. Indicators of something bigger yet not elitist. Things that change, shape our life and end up defining an era, a way of seeing and interpreting things, of perceiving work, leisure, relationships, both personal and social.  Things which are varyingly referred to as universal culture, business culture, culture of the masses or of single layers of society. Looking back on the objects which marked the evolution of said culture can be a useful exercise. It does us all good. Because “things” give an insight not only into ways of living and working, they also illustrate how development, progress and growth were framed. That’s why the very recently published “I migliori oggetti della nostra vita” [lit. The best objects of our life] by Marta Boneschi makes such an interesting read.

The book takes the reader on a journey through the things which changed our lives over the past one hundred years, since the second world war in particular, and emerged as the major milestones of the era. The premise is a very simple one: life in the 20th century changed more than in any other century. Many of the values, behaviour, lifestyles, and objects which had been ours for centuries were all banished to the loft. Radical change indeed, but underpinned by objects, apparently only small things, which very quickly entered our lives and became an everyday part of it.

We have antibiotics to cure our ills, running water, central heating, frigidaires and minipimers, the book tells us. We have trains, bikes, scooters and cars, both to travel in and holiday with, and then there’s cinema, radio and television.  We also have objects which have engendered new habits, like mobile phones and smartphones, not to mention computers and the web.

Marta Boneschi – journalist first and foremost and also historian, with a talent for accurate but light-hearted narration – has put together a well thought out catalogue of the things which have made us what we are. And which, in turn, shaped the culture we know today, in both images and words. Stories of everyday objects (like kitchen utensils, medicines, washing machines, sewing machines, plastic, the radio, telephones, bicycles) flash past, along with tales of other things which brought sweeping changes we’ll all recognise (cars, motorways, television, trains, Vespa scooters) and yet more which “transformed”  habits (advertising, the pill, books, cinema). Many of these products were also the building blocks of Italian manufacturing and will forever be associated with their leading brand names. This is proof of an evolving business culture which is being, to some degree, both recovered and reinvented.  Each and every object is presented in words and images, with passion and precision.

Marta Boneschi’s treatise should not be mistaken, however, merely for a congenial look at the life and times of the modern world.  Behind it lies much more.  It contains a dynamic picture of society – Italy in particular – which has grown new skin and substance in a very short space of time; a world which has mutated its ideals (not always for the better), found new pathways and paradigms of growth (social and economic), and embraced new challenges (both manufacturing and industrial).

I migliori oggetti della nostra vita” has something for everyone, including those trying to understand modern society and its many ills.

I migliori oggetti della nostra vita

Marta Boneschi

il Mulino, 2016