Review: Susan Harlan – “Luggage”

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a traveler and his or her luggage. We become our things.

This is a longish monograph about luggage: some history, but mainly a quite unedited barrage into what luggage has been throughout the ages, what constitutes luggage, some anecdotes about luggage, how people treat it, worship it, forget it, have it plundered, words on the evolution it it, et cetera.

At the best of times it’s introspective and funny, like this:

And the boring black suitcases cause confusion. Excuse me, but I think that one is mine. No, I’m pretty sure this one is mine—let me check the tag. Oh, I’m so sorry—it looks just like mine. This is the baggage carousel dance. Trying to reclaim our property. Trying to identify it. Some people monogram their luggage. This is practical—a monogram helps you to pick out you suitcase— but it is also tied to identity in deeper ways. A monogram is the textual distillation of your identity and a declaration of ownership. This is mine. It becomes another brand: your brand alongside the brand of the suitcase; a mark the self, endlessly reproducible and immediately recognizable.

At its worst it’s filler and seemingly just advertising, as with the favorable mentions of Louis Vuitton.

There’s quite some matter-of-factly stand-ins:

Commercial airlines now estimate 190 pounds per passenger, including his or her carry-ons, and 30 pounds per checked bag. Four hundred passengers and their luggage, or approximately 75,000 pounds, makes up only 10 percent of the total weight of a fully loaded 747. (Fuel often accounts for a third or more of a plane’s total bulk.) But you can still travel on Cunard’s Queen Mary with unlimited luggage.

Still, as a whole, paragraphs can be interesting:

Disasters leave luggage behind. Genocide leaves luggage behind. In David Foster Wallace’s 1995 essay for Harper’s about the absurdities of luxury cruises “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” the invisible handling of baggage brings to mind the Holocaust: “A second Celebrity crowdcontrol lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about our luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List.”

All in all, if you are a fan of luggage and factiods, I do recommend this book.

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