Profile, £14.99, 247pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, By Steven Connor

It doesn't do to bite the hand that feeds one. But have a look through this newspaper. If you're reading this online, have a look through the global interwebs. What you find is that it's all about stuff. Stuff you don't need, most of it. Much of it, stuff you don't want which, thanks to the genius and sheer effort of marketing and advertising, you somehow come to believe you do want. Some of it (insurance is a good example) is stuff they are pretty certain you will never need, which is why they persuade you that you need it urgently, or else.

Much of this is Big Stuff. The many-thousands-of-pounds silly watch that offers you the chance to magically acquire the kudos and values of someone in an advertisment: a sports star, say, or a constipated Swiss banker smirking at his prissy son. The ludicrously expensive car with a head-up display projected onto your windscreen, so that you can pretend that you're a fighter pilot. Except that fighter pilots drive things like Honda Civics, and their HUD shows them breaking through Mach 2 as the SAMs hurtle upwards, while yours shows you the correct exit on the Hangar Lane gyratory.

Steven Connor's urbane, witty and seductive book avoids the Big Stuff, reasoning, I imagine, that it's all about itself, and imposing the values it represents. Big Stuff is like Dylan Thomas's famous hypallage of the man "with a blunderbuss bourbon, being smoked by a large cigar." Small stuff is another matter. Like the textual trickery so brilliantly disclosed in Roland Barthes's Mythologies – which Paraphernalia resembles – Connor dissects, meditates and discourses on 18 categories oof the small stuff which makes up the substrate of our lives.

Bags, batteries, combs, glasses, keys, rubber bands, sweets and wires are among his subjects, and in every case offer surprises and jumping-off points for further pleasant speculation. Queen Elizabeth I had a craving for buttons. A discussion on combs leads him to consider aerodynamic laminar flow and the cult of the lawn among Anglo-Saxons. Knots can not only join but block: touching a bridegroom with a handkerchief, then tying a knot in it, can prevent consummation.

In passing, there are wonders, most wonderful of all Connor's childhood dog, a dachshund called Ringo who consumed handkerchiefs which passed through him unscathed but became tightly rolled in transit. The first sign was a blossom of cotton at Ringo's exit. His description of the point at which the emerging handkerchief was as long as Ringo himself – "tightly furled... like the twisted sheet one might use to climb out of a burning building... as though the sausage dog had been transformed into a kind of hanky dispenser" – will remain in the mind for ever.

But this is more than just a meditative cabinet of overlooked curiosities. Connor eschews the word "stuff" for the richer "paraphernalia". The word itself originally meant the goods and chattels a woman brought to marriage which were not part of her dowry. It later came to mean that part of a wife's property outside her husband's estate. There are resonances of inviolability about it, and of a deep association between paraphernalia and its owner.

The "magical" nature of these things is, again, reminiscent of the "mythologies" smuggled under the disguise of everyday texts in Barthes's book. Our paraphernalia possesses, in our eyes, a significance beyond the material: it appears to give something to us which is no more than what we project onto it.

Women's handbags are only an extreme example of this. Not just women, either: I have a soft leather messenger bag which has a name. It is called Bungo. I believe Bungo has a nature, almost a personality; I believe Bungo says something about me. What it says is (a) that I believe my bag says something about me and (b) I have given it a name: Bungo. I wonder what that says about me?

There is, in the end, a more serious point to Paraphernalia. We live in an age where we are more and more defined not by texts but by material artefacts. Connor, professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, has bypassed the usual academic discourse of consumer materialism and applied some of the techniques of literary theory to stuff. The result is challenging and often enchanting. If I had one complaint, it's that I wasn't called on to index the book. That would be a job to die for.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015