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What We Keep
150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning
By Bill Shapiro
By Naomi Wax
Formats and Prices
- ebook $13.99 $17.99 CAD
- Hardcover $25.00 $32.50 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 25, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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All of us have that one object that holds deep meaning–something that speaks to our past, that carries a remarkable story. Bestselling author Bill Shapiro collected this sweeping range of stories–he talked to everyone from renowned writers to Shark Tank hosts, from blackjack dealers to teachers, truckers, and nuns, even a reformed counterfeiter–to reveal the often hidden, always surprising lives of objects.
LET’S START HERE
IN THIS BOOK, you will find the story of a bottle opener that a drug-dealing grandmother gave to her grandson. The strange pincushion that foreshadowed a future writer’s wanderings. The bullet a soldier would have used to kill himself had his mission gone south. The notebook sketch that sparked a hit movie.
What you won’t find is the story of the locket that, in small and subtle ways, led to the idea for the book itself.
Naomi and I were poking around a yard sale in rural New York when, next to a Vietnam-era Zippo, she spotted a locket. Inside, the inscription read, “My Love Forever” in letters now faded by time. There was a date, too: 1911. The locket was so delicate, so beautiful, so personal that it was hard to fathom how it had ended up here, at the end of some driveway, for sale to strangers. Maybe it had belonged to the homeowner’s wife who’d run away with her lover! Maybe it had turned up under a loose floorboard, like in a scene from a cheesy movie. More likely, the locket had simply been passed down so many times that the connection to its original owner had been lost.
I spoke with the young woman running the sale; she didn’t have a clue about the locket’s history. (The home belonged to her aging uncle, who’d relocated to Texas.) We left the locket for someone else, but walked away kind of fixated on how once an object is separated from its story, its importance begins to fade. We thought about the objects that take on meaning in people’s lives, those treasures, trophies, and keepsakes we display on our shelves, stash in our drawers, tuck into our pockets, that move with us from home to home, that provide us with comfort simply because we know they’re there. And we became intrigued by the stories that get wrapped tightly, if temporarily, around them.
EXPLORING OUR ATTACHMENTS to objects isn’t exactly a new line of inquiry. Neanderthals, no doubt, sat around this mind-blowing thing called “fire” and asked each other what they’d drag away should the cave alight. And yet, today, as every turn of season seems to bring biblically destructive hurricanes, floods, and, yes, fires, more and more of us find ourselves facing the no-longer-theoretical question—“what would I take?”—in real time and with real consequences. Those of us spared from each new disaster quietly give thanks, but do so with a growing sense that as our climate changes, we, too, may have to choose, grab, and go.
Of course it’s not just our climate that’s changing. The drive to have less stuff is clearly in the Zeitgeist: Our books, music, and photographs have moved from our shelves to the cloud, and the “sharing economy” encourages us to borrow rather than own; at the same time, we’re seeing a cultural shift toward valuing experiences over things. And with the Tiny House movement nudging Americans to trade in that McMansion for 400 clutter-free square feet, it’s not surprising that Marie Kondo has sold more than five million books urging us to rid ourselves of those possessions that fail to “spark joy.”
AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, Naomi and I began looking more closely at the objects in our own lives. Why had she held on to a pair of shredded blue jeans that she first wore in high school? Why did I still have a hand-scrawled hitchhiking sign from a trip through Germany 30 years ago? As we shared the stories behind these objects and the meaning they held for us, aspects of our lives emerged that we’d never talked about with each other—or even really articulated to ourselves. That seemed interesting.
And so we began asking our friends about the objects they’ve kept, then friends of friends—and then we cast a wider net. Our research took us on a poky, 1,600-mile road trip through the Great Plains states where we lingered in one-stoplight towns with names like Elk Horn, Dell Rapids, and Ida Grove. We talked with folks in the coffee shops, meat lockers, and mayor’s offices where they worked, and heard stories about objects carried across the Rockies in a covered wagon; brought back from Novosibirsk, Siberia; pawned and later repurchased.
In the end, we interviewed people from all over the country, in red states and blue, some well-known and some who wished to remain anonymous, one percenters and those with (almost) nothing. This book is a compendium of their treasured possessions and the often untold histories behind them.
One thing in particular that struck us: Of the more than 300 people we spoke with, not one chose an object because of its dollar value. Our hearts are not accountants; we cling to the meaningful, not the monetary. What makes these objects so evocative for us is that they hold the memories of people, of relationships, of places and moments and milestones that speak to our own identity. Sometimes they connect us to a time in our life when we realized all that we were capable of. Sometimes they connect us to the best we’ve seen in others and to what we aspire to be—and beyond that, as the Grateful Dead’s longtime publicist put it in my conversation with him, to our place in “the ongoing pageant of human drama.” What Naomi and I came to see is that these bottle openers and bullets, these playing cards, letters, and lockets not only crystallize core truths about each of us but also help us tell the stories of our life, even explain our life to ourselves. And for that reason, they’re priceless.
P.S.: GRANDPA’S AX? An old charm bracelet? A Christmas ornament, magic wand, or a hubcap? If you have a treasured object, we’d love to hear about it. We’re still talking to people, still collecting unique stories. You can share yours—or read more—on our Facebook page (facebook.com/groups/WhatWeKeep/) and on Instagram at (#WhatWeKeep).
ONE MORE NOTE: The stories in this book are the result of casual conversations as well as more formal interviews, and we’ve edited them for length and clarity. Many of the objects that appear on these pages were photographed by the people who own them.
THE DAY BY.”
I loved the day we spent searching for this old ghost town in New Mexico, in a little red car, just enjoying each other’s company. He and I could spend days on end together and never run out of things to talk about. I’d never felt a connection like that with anyone.
When we finally found it, the old silver-mining town was completely abandoned, just falling-down buildings in the desert. We didn’t take any photos, and I wanted something to remember the day by, just to, you know, bring a little piece of it home. So as we were walking and kicking up dust, I’d pick up an old bent nail or a piece of wood and put it in my pocket.
I think these nails and splinters mean more now that the relationship’s over. Originally, they were about us exploring this really cool mining town. But the town is over, and so is our relationship, and I cherish these fragments, these fragments of a ghost town.
~ Jackie Mock, artist, New York, NY
“IT HELPED ME COME ALIVE.”
Before I tried the slackline, I didn’t have a passion. I was going through the motions. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and felt like there was nothing to do. It was like, “Let’s go to the bar tonight” or “What’s on TV?” This flat, one-inch-wide piece of webbing opened up everything and helped me come alive.
I started in a park, a foot off the ground, and saw walking the line as a safe way to get over my fear of heights. At first, it was like the tiniest piece of rope under my foot, like walking on a rubber band. Then one day it switched, it felt familiar. When you’re 4,000 or 5,000 feet in the air, in a space where you’re not supposed to be, you have to focus on what’s familiar. Now the feeling of the line calms me down.
Highlining changed my whole mind-set. It’s brought me adventure, I’ve traveled the world, I started my own business, I met my fiancé—all because of this piece of rope.
~ Kimberly Weglin, highliner, Sacramento, CA
“IT’S THIS ABSOLUTE TANGIBLE REMINDER THAT
MY LIFE WAS ONCE
“My strat” sounds cooler than it is because it isn’t a Stradivarius or Stratocaster. It’s my straw hat—a boater, like they had in the ’20s. We had to wear them at Winchester, my boarding school in England, along with a jacket and tie. We couldn’t be bothered to say “straw hat.” Just “strat.”
We’d treat our strats like shit, and at some point the housemaster would say, “You’re holding a piece of straw, and that won’t do.” I got a new one my senior year, which is the one I keep on the wall of my bedroom, where you’d hardly notice it.
I was 15 when my mom and stepdad, who were both teachers, left New York for a sabbatical in England. They didn’t believe there were actual schools in California, where my dad lived; they thought everyone out there was making movies and fighting Indians. Winchester had the best academic rep in England—and I had no business being there.
My strat brings up the most delicious Dickensian memories: All of the classrooms at Winchester were stone, all the kids had fingerless gloves, and everyone’s suits were shabby. But even sullen teenager me would look around and say, “This is the most beautiful place and these are the best teachers in the world.”
There’s some guilt at how much work I didn’t do and how much I didn’t live up to what I wanted to be there; a lot of the things I was going through didn’t have acronyms yet, and if it wasn’t English or history, I almost physically wasn’t able to study. But the teachers were phenomenal, and although I was originally supposed to go back to New York after a year, I decided to stay. I stayed for the education… and then I abused it. I basically majored in dropping acid.
So while my strat really serves no purpose—it’s not like I’m sporting it when I go barhopping—it’s this absolute tangible reminder that my life was once that weird and that old-fashioned, that I lived through this crazy experience of being dropped into a hermetically sealed time capsule, a 600-year-old, all-male boarding school in England.
There’s a certain amount of pride—well, not exactly pride, more like ownership—and a little delight at having been part of something that shouldn’t have existed in the modern era.
I’m not a collector of things. I’ve walked away from a lot and I have thrown away a lot, including a perfectly healthy relationship. So I’m real good at moving on. But the strat is different. There was never a time I didn’t want my strat. There was never a moment when I was like, “I’m over this.” I was at Winchester until I was 18, but, in a way, I never came back.
It does nicely on the wall.
~ Joss Whedon, writer, director, activist, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Los Angeles, CA
“It filled an emptiness we both probably had at the time.”
I met Kevin 40 years ago, when we were both working at the service station. We did gas, oil, air, windows, lube, everything. My wife and I had split up and his wife had left him, and every night after work we’d sit around for hours together drinking beers, Kevin playing guitar and me trying to figure out the harmonica. We’d tell stories about our relationships and our lives, and it filled an emptiness we both probably had at the time.
My first harmonica was a C harp, but there’s this Marshall Tucker song Kevin always played, “In My Own Way,” and it’s in the key of G, so I bought this Hohner Marine Band G harp. That’s the song that kinda got me started. Back then, Kevin used to say he hoped we’d have a friendship that when we were a hundred we’d be going to the coffee shop on Saturday mornings. We don’t go to the coffee shop, but I’m 60 and we still get together three, four nights a week.
~ Dan Pruitt, radiologic technologist, men’s prison; Archer City, TX
“THE SHAME ABOUT BEING POOR GOES ALL THE WAY BACK, AND HAVING
A GLORIOUS SHELL
WAS THE OPPOSITE OF THAT.”
This has always been an object of wonder for me, but I’ve never talked to anyone about it. Even my husband didn’t know the story—and we’ve been together 20 years.
The first week of first or second grade, we were asked to bring something in for show-and-tell. I walked around our tiny apartment in Chaska, Minnesota—by then my parents had divorced, my mom was a single mom with three kids, we were poor—and we didn’t have anything interesting or cool for show-and-tell.
I decided I’d bring this murex shell. It was given to my mom by her father, who was in the army in the Philippines in the ’40s and ’50s. It was spiny and glorious. It had an air of mystery. But there was one problem: I wanted to say that I’d found it on an exotic beach. That’s what I wanted people to think. For my story to work, though, I would have to separate the poufy red velvet pincushion part—which was glued into the crevice—from the shell. I used a butter knife, and I can still see where I made some progress. My mother came upon me and told me I couldn’t do that. She said, “You can take the shell—but as it is, like a pincushion.” I remember thinking that that ruined everything. I wanted so badly for people to think I’d found this shell. I was in tears. I was obliterated. And I didn’t bring it.
The shame about being poor goes all the way back, and having a glorious shell was the opposite of that. You know, there’s what you remember now but also what you remember imagining then, and I remember that even then I had this image of myself as the kind of girl who would be walking on an exotic beach, who would find a magnificent shell like this. It was not only that I was there but that I found the shell. I wanted to be lucky. It was also about beauty, about the ambition to be venturing out in the world and in a far-off place. What I knew was that I wanted to be something that I wasn’t, that I wanted people to see me as someone who I wasn’t. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t that I wanted to deceive but that I wanted to become.
The shell pincushion now sits on a shelf in my bedroom. Looking at it, knowing I had those thoughts of who I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live, and knowing that I’ve done it, is the most beautiful, the truest thing. It’s the core of who I am. The shell is like this present: It holds in its very being both the girl I was and the woman I became.
~ Cheryl Strayed, author, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things; co-host, Dear Sugars podcast; Portland, OR
“IT MAKES ME FEEL
TO TOUCH IT.”
I’m not attached to many objects, but on my bookcase is a small cup where I store my treasures. It has one of Jerry Garcia’s guitar picks, three acorns from exactly where Thoreau’s cabin was at Walden, a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a slug from a Civil War–era rifle, and a little stuffed bunny my daughter bought me. And then I have a Greek drachma from approximately 300 BC with the face of Alexander the Great on it.
I think it was in 1996, not long after Jerry died, that I went to London to supervise The Illustrated Trip, an encyclopedia of the Grateful Dead. My wife and I were at the British Museum and had plans to meet some friends, and I was aware we had to get going. But when we walked out of the museum, there was a coin store right across the street. I said, “Come on,” and we raced in. I walked up to the guy and said, “I want something really old.” He put this drachma in front of me—smaller than a penny, slightly bent out of shape, the profile of Alexander on one side. I took one look and I said, “That’s it.”
I happen to be a Buddhist, and one thing you can associate with Buddhists is the idea that “this too shall pass, all things change, all things go away.” And yet this coin has endured. It has no value in the conventional sense—it cost maybe $30—but it connects me to the ongoing pageant of human drama, to the human story of life, to someone who had it in their pocket 2,300 years ago. Someone—maybe many people—wanted this coin very much, sweated over it, maybe died for it. It makes me feel human to touch it. Hey, what is life if not the things that make you sentimental?
~ Dennis McNally, cultural historian, the Grateful Dead’s publicist for 23 years, Jack Kerouac’s biographer, San Francisco, CA
“The diamonds are a reminder of how
the soul can be.”
Most military men don’t wear their wedding ring when they’re deployed. It can get caught in machinery or their weapon, and the reflection can attract enemies. But I knew that Michael would never take his ring off. I knew what it meant to him.
We’d only been married a year and a half when he was killed in Iraq. The Casualty Assistance Office told me that he was wearing his ring, that they were going to send it back to me in a manila envelope. But I wanted Michael to be able to wear it to Dover and, eventually, be cremated with it on.
After his death, there were so many dark moments that I never thought I’d come out of. It was like I was falling down a hole, and it took me a long time to remember who I was. My ring has been a part of my journey: I didn’t take it off for seven years. I was only 19 when we got married, and the ring symbolized the love Michael and I had for each other, love in its purest form, undiluted by time. But then three years ago, I put the diamonds from the ring onto this necklace. It’s come to symbolize coming out of my darkness. The diamonds are a reminder of just how indestructible the soul can be, and that I didn’t give up, that I made it through.
~ Taryn Guerrero Davis, founder, American Widow Project; Wimberley, TX
“I HAD A MONSTER UNDER MY BED,
AND GIZMO PROTECTED ME FROM HIM.”
Gizmo was a gift from Mindy Berger for my fifth birthday. I was kind of a lonely kid, and Gizmo became a friend. I had a difficult relationship with my sister; I don’t know if she was jealous or bored, but she saw how much I valued Gizmo and she’d kidnap him. One time, she held a knife to his throat and actually cut his head off.
I had a monster under my bed, and Gizmo protected me from him. But at some point, the monster started to try to get Gizmo; I would hide Gizmo behind my back and the monster would say, “I’m going to stay here and wait for Gizmo.” While he waited, we’d have a conversation. Eventually the monster became my friend, too.
Today, I keep Gizmo on my dresser. He reminds me of that little, scared girl that needed a friend, and of that era when I believed Gizmo might have some talismanic powers to protect me. Part of me is still that scared girl—it’s hard to be a woman in science, it’s hard to invent knowledge—and having Gizmo here, on the dresser… I guess there’s comfort in that continuity.
~ Jillian Wormington, vector-borne disease researcher, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
“BEING IN SCOUTING
FOREVER CHANGED ME.”
Only a tiny percentage of Boy Scouts make Eagle Scout, and a lot of those people lose their medals in time. I was 15 and 11 months when I received this, the youngest Eagle Scout in my troop in Clifton, New Jersey. I keep it in my bedroom in a prominent place on a bookshelf across from my bed.
The “Be Prepared” motto has guided me in everything. I’ve even saved a couple of lives. I rescued a woman from her car after she skidded on an icy highway; I helped father-and-son kayakers who were stuck in roaring rapids and petrified; I pulled my wife from a cold, fast-moving river. I see a direct line from this badge to those actions: the idea of staying calm in moments like that and having the mind-set of being able to say, “I can do this.” Being in scouting profoundly and forever changed me. To me, it’s what WWII was to the guys who fought there. That was the most amazing period in their lives, that was their moment. This was my moment.
~ Peter Osborne, historian, Red Cloud, NE
“They’re the ramblings of an
It’s just a doodle in my journal, but it changed my life.
- "From the former editor-in-chief of Life Magazine comes this gorgeous photo collection of everyday things that people hold dear. A combination of fascinating interviews and photographs introduce readers to the most personal items owned by notable individuals including Cheryl Strayed, Melinda Gates, and Mark Cuban, all while examining the reasons we consider certain possessions invaluable."—Real Simple, 'The Best Books of 2018 (So Far)
- "Our no-fail host gift? A book that's instantly absorbing yet easy to dip in and out of. This season, that book is What We Keep, a collection of interviews with a cast of personalities - some famous, others merely fascinating - about the objects they cherish above all others."—Sunset
- "[A] moving new book, What We Keep, offers a meditation on the distinctly human need to find meaning in the inanimate."—Fast Company
- On Sale
- Sep 25, 2018
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Running Press