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Book review: Adventures in Stationery, by James Ward

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 October, 2014, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 October, 2014, 10:52pm

Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case
by James Ward
Profile Books

As any parent knows, the siren song of the stationer is crack for kids, with its smorgasbord of potential impulse purchases. Even adults can get caught up, tapping a sentimental vein as we hunt for nuggets in the half-hidden piles at the back of the shelf.

For most of us, however, it's a whimsical indulgence of a child-like fascination with small bits of "stuff". James Ward, though - now he has a problem.

Co-founder of the Stationery Club in London and prime mover behind the Boring Conference, Ward is a self-confessed addict who aims to retrieve the forgotten stories of everyday things from life's waste-paper bin. Unfortunately, this book feels like one of those "Tip and Strip" novelty pens young boys buy on school trips to the British seaside: two-dimensional and lifeless.

Many authors have spun great yarns from such unlikely subjects - nutmeg, say, or longitude. They succeed by weaving a narrow topic into a rich tapestry of compelling characters and bigger events, giving the reader a real sense of place. While Ward promises "adventures" and "a journey through your pencil case", this book feels as if it was written in a teenager's bedroom, surrounded by piles of dirty socks.

When Ward encounters a burning question he must solve - how many pencils does Ikea get through? What are the thousands of uses claimed by the makers of Blu-Tack? Was the inventor of Pritt Stick inspired by a woman applying lipstick? - he engages the problem at arm's length with emails and phone calls to faceless employees, and relying on the "about us" section of corporate websites.

The book would have benefited from sights, sounds and smells from the shop floor, and interactions with real people to help the storytelling along. Instead, the reader is given a laundry list of "fancy that!" factoids.

Do you wake up in the night wondering about who invented the paperclip? Well, you won't find out here. After ricocheting through the permutations of this bent piece of wire, we're none the wiser - it seems no-one really knows.