obsoleteBy Anna Jane Grossman
Abrams Image, $15.95, 191 pages

“Fads come and go,” writes Anna Jane Grossman, “but something begins to seem obsolete when it is no longer in use, either because it has been supplanted by something that’s perceived as categorically better or faster or stronger or easier, or because the purpose it served has exited stage right.” With this in mind, Grossman, a journalist whose writings have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, has crafted a compendium of such artifacts in her new book, Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By.

An A-to-Z collection of short essays on objects that have disappeared from the American consciousness, or are on their way out, Obsolete is both clever and riotously funny. Grossman manages to strike the perfect balance between sincerity and humor, writing in a tongue-in-cheek style that draws the reader in. There are more than 100 topics she focuses on, from AM Radio and cursive writing to milkmen and percolators. Some garner a mere sentence or two (she describes paper plane pickets as “Vouchers for travel by way of airplane, mailed to the purchaser and frequently lost somewhere between home and the airport”), while she devotes multiple pages to other subjects, like lickable stamps and Polaroids.

Witty and easily digestible, Obsolete is both a handy reference guide to the not-so-distant past, and a reminder that obsolescence is an unstoppable force.

Reviewed by Mark Petruska