Both an art book and a unique sort of novel, Leanne Shapton’s impressively titled Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry is built on the intimate, ordinary details of two lives. Lenore Doolan, a food writer, and Hal Morris, a photographer, are Shapton’s own creations, but the material objects that define their four-and-a-half year relationship could hardly feel more authentic.
Ordered chronologically, the book is an exhaustive auction catalog of the defunct couple’s possessions. Shapton, the art director of the New York Times Op-Ed page (it’ll tell you something about her clever, sweetly sad aesthetic that her designs include the titles for Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale), keeps the layout simple and restrained, organizing messy human emotion — and the objects it’s attached to — into individual lots offered up for reasonable prices (“seven pairs of socks, lightly worn” is listed for $10-30; “pair of unused movie tickets” is $5-15).
Along with personal letters, emails, grocery lists, mix CDs (with accompanying track lists), Christmas cards, party invitations, newspaper clippings and many photographs of the couple, there’s the revealing contents of a cosmetic case (precisely inventoried and photographed laid out in neat rows), “a collection of rocks,” “duplicate copies of seven paperbacks” and “ten identical take-out menus from local Chinese restaurant Wah-Sing.” All of these items stand as evidence of the particular ways these two people shared their lives — and just as importantly, the ways they didn’t.
One of the more obvious pleasures here is basic voyeurism. There’s also satisfaction in piecing together Doolan and Morris’s story entirely through the things they owned and used, and seeing what happened between “a cup used by the couple for their toothbrushes” and “real estate listings for one-bedroom apartments.” All the while, it’s a little unsettling to think about how the detritus of our own romances might end up catalogued, but in Shapton’s assured hands, there’s something oddly comforting about it, too.