arts and pop culture | March 23, 2016

First Look: Alison Stewart’s New Book, JUNK

Journalist Alison Stewart is perhaps best known for her insightful dissection of modern education, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. But in JUNK, she tackles an entirely different topic: America’s unhealthy obsession with ‘stuff’—the forgotten knickknacks, outright trash, and treasured possessions that fill our living rooms, antique shops, storage lockers, and thrift stores. As only a sharp cultural critic can, Stewart dives headfirst into the American heartland to unpack the term “junk,” pinpoint its prominent role in our lives, and explore how it defines us in the here and now.

If you tour the average person’s garage, rec room, attic, or basement, you’ll undoubtedly find items well past their expiry dates: dust-covered Elvis records, tattered childhood clothing, souvenirs from vacations long forgotten, and collections of antique soda bottles. For most, this is considered normal. But why? And why do we hang onto things we’ll probably never use again? JUNK: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff chronicles Stewart’s three-year, cross-country journey in search of the answer.

In JUNK, Stewart combs through hoarder houses, peers inside America’s massive junk-removal industry, and goes behind the scenes of junk-TV favorites Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars. From gargantuan yard sales in central Alabama to the swirling ring of space debris orbiting the Earth, Stewart doubles down on materialism and nostalgia: what qualifies as junk? And why can’t we bear to part with it? Called a “quirky, immersive report” by Kirkus Reviews, JUNK also profiles those who resist the modern stockpiling phenomenon. As part of her ambitious ‘junk-a-thon,’ Stewart investigates the burgeoning ‘tiny house’ movement, visits appliance-repair collectives, and peeks into the psyche of millennials, whose digital upbringing means they value experiences over objects.

Until you can read JUNK for yourself this April, here’s a brief overview from the publisher, Chicago Review Press:

“Junk has become ubiquitous in America today. Who doesn't have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away. When journalist and author Alison Stewart was confronted with emptying her late parents' overloaded basement, a job that dragged on for months, it got her thinking: How did it come to this? Why do smart, successful people hold on to old Christmas bows, chipped knick-knacks, VHS tapes, and books they would likely never reread? She discovered she was not alone.

JUNK details Stewart’s three-year investigation into America’s stuff, lots and lots and lots of stuff. Stewart rides along with junk removal teams from around the country such as Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets. She goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, and learns what makes for compelling junk-based television with the executive producer of Pawn Stars. And she even investigates the growing problem of space junk—23,000 pieces of manmade debris orbiting the planet at 17,500 mph, threatening both satellites and human space exploration. But it’s not all dire. There are creative solutions to America's overburdened consumer culture. Stewart visits with Deron Beal, founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends a day at a Repair Café, where volunteer tinkerers bring new life to broken appliances, toys, and just about anything. Stewart also explores communities of ‘tiny houses’ without attics and basements in which to stash the owners' trash. JUNK is a delightful journey through 250-mile-long yard sales, and packrat dens, both human and rodent, that for most readers will look surprisingly familiar.”

To book Alison Stewart for a talk on education, or on her new book JUNK, contact The Lavin Agency speakers bureau.

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