Imagine your son waking up on Christmas morning and rushing to open his presents in breathless anticipation of getting a shiny new iPod, only to find out he's got a Zune, which is like coming second in chess.
When I read this on David Galbraith's blog a few weeks ago, I had a moment of deja vu. More than twenty years ago, I heard an author describing an identical experience, except it he was talking about a little boy who was hoping for a real baseball bat; his clueless parents got him a perfectly good non-Louisville Slugger instead.
You know it when you see it. There's the iPod, and there are all those other MP3 players; there's the Louisville Slugger, and there are all those other baseball bats. As you've probably heard, Steve Jobs unveiled a long-awaited product last week; he intends to reduce the competition to nothing more than all those other phones.
What makes something the real thing? It's more than functionality, popularity, or beauty. The name of author who told the Louisville Slugger story was Owen Edwards, and he had just written a book that gave the phenomenon a name: Quintessence.
It was 1983. "This is a book about things," Edwards and his co-author Betty Cornfeld wrote in the introduction to Quintessence: The Quality of Having It, "things that offer more to us than we specifically ask of them and to which we respond more strongly than is easily explained. What the various things in this book have in common — whether candy or cars, cigarettes or shoes, baseball bats or blimps — is the quality of quintessence. In a wide variety of ways, they each exhibit a rare and mysterious capacity to be just exactly what they ought to be."
Edwards and Kornfeld try to unlock that puzzle, invoking along the way — among others — Marcel Proust, Immanuel Kant, Blaise Pascal, and John Ruskin (quoted on "the mysterious sense of accountable life in things themselves"). They take pains to point out that they're not interested in identifying the best: "'Best' is a judgment based on statistics, not taste or instinct; and in a world of constant technological innovation and furious competition, being the best of anything is usually a short term occupation." In some ways, long before John Aaker began publishing books on the subject, and barely ever using the word themselves, they created in Quintessence the best treatise ever written what it means to be a great brand.
The structure of the book is simple. It consists of a series of tributes, each with a photograph, each either a single page or a two page spread, to the things that Edwards and Cornfeld felt supported their thesis. The list is wildly diverse. The Stetson Hat. The Ace Comb. Wedgwood Plain White Bone China. The Spalding Rubber Ball. Ivory Soap. The Harley-Davidson ElectraGlide. Campbell's Tomato Soup ("A must for every cupboard and every bomb shelter.") Some of the items are luxurious (The Steinway Piano, the Mont Blanc Diplomat Pen, the Cartier Santos) but most are inexpensive (Oreo Cookies, the Zippo lighter, the Timex Mercury 20521). Although many are name brands, a few are generic or homemade (the Martini, the brown paper bag, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich).
If you doubt the critical acuity of Edwards and Cornfeld, consider that of the sixty-plus items they selected for Quintenssence, in my opinion only a few would fail to make the cut nearly 25 years later. The Polaroid SX-70 camera, for instance, hasn't stood the test of time, and in most people's minds Frederick's of Hollywood Lingerie has been superceded by Victoria's Secret. But it says a lot that the single object in the book that looks truly dated is the one that was discontinued and then revived: the VW Beetle. Tellingly, New Beetle creator J Mays described his design approach in terms you sense the Quintenssence authors would applaud: "There's a conscious effort on our part to try to take the next step forward while retaining the essence of the original idea."
Predictably, many of the products are familiar from our childhood; kids seem to have a nearly infallible sense of what makes something the real thing. "A rule of thumb often useful in determining whether something is quintessential," wrote Edwards and Kornfeld, "is whether it resembles a child's drawing of the thing." This childlike sensibility holds true today. Mays said the New Beetle's circular shape had much in common with Walt Disney's drawing of Mickey Mouse; David Galbraith goes to far as to label the Zune "unsafe for children," imagining that any child unlucky to get one will be fated to get "the shit kicked out of him at school by mocking friends chanting 'Zuny Zuny Zuny.'"
I for one recall my unease at visiting a neighbor's house where the staples were not Oreos ("The quintessentiality of the Oreo is mysteriously and precariously balanced") and Coca-Cola ("Nothing works like Coke does. Not even water"), but rather Hydrox Cookies and RC Cola. No matter that Hydrox were invented before Oreos; no matter that I secretly thought they tasted better: there was just something profoundly disturbing about a family that would so obliviously distance themselves from the American mainstream. If I learned these people were sacrificing live goats every Friday night their basement bumper pool table, I wouldn't have been all that surprised.
Looking at the book today, one is struck by its sincerity. In 1983, indulging in poetic connoisseurship over something like M&Ms ("little lapidary bits of confection, in their rather sober brown bag") seemed daring and even a bit transgressive. Writing in the New York Times, Christopher Lehman-Haupt called the book "informative, pungent and witty;" the cover alone, with its lovely juxtaposition of cheap candy, cocktails and luxury goods, seemed to promise a new way of thinking about everyday life. Of course, today, one isn't permitted to discover the charms of M&Ms on one's own. Why bother when a bombastic 25,000-square-foot "retail experience" has been erected on Times Square to subject vistors to a "three story sensory immersion into the world of M&Ms?" Quintessence was a single drop in an ocean, the ripples from which, twenty-odd years later, have metastasized into a never-ending tsunami.
But the original still stands up to scrutiny, not just as a book of essays, but as an example of the very thing it sought to describe. In the making of Quintessence, Edwards and Cornfeld collaborated with John Jay, then a wunderkind art director at Bloomingdale's, today executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. His layouts look a little dated (the headlines are Bodoni — quintessential — but the text is, um, Avant Garde Book) Nonetheless, the pages are still clean, powerful, and confident. Ketchup bottles, sneakers, and Hershey's Kisses, all boldly rendered in Dan Kozan's black and white photographs, have never looked more iconic.
If you can get your hands on the first edition, grab it. The book was reissued in 2001, and in a redesigned form, with pretty color pictures, different typeface choices, and new layouts. It looks a little more modern, perhaps. But in an unspeakable bit of irony, it lacks somehow that quality that, according to Edwards and Cornfeld, "can no more by stalked and captured than can true love." In short, it simply is no longer quintessential.