Near the heart of her latest book—published in conjunction with a show she's curated for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—Maira Kalman reproduces two yellowed pages from an 1835 school primer.
In a sense, My Favorite Things is a contemporary primer, an eclectic blend of Kalman's artwork and meditations on love, memory, pleasure, and sorrow, throughout which she exhibits an extraordinary attachment to ordinary things, among them scissors, ladders, and coat-check stubs; for her, humble, utilitarian objects are suffused with poetry.
The text is handwritten in Kalman's almost childlike script, consistent with her unassuming yet sophisticated drawing style. Whether wielding images or words, Kalman conjures entire worlds with a few strokes. In one autobiographical section, she fast-forwards from childhood to adolescence by means of a quick list of nouns: "Violins and pianos. Dance shoes. Hairspray. Cameras. Photos. Tears. Journals. Magazines."
Kalman has a sense of humor and a feeling for history—she includes, for example, a painting of Lincoln's pocket watch—but is also capable of inducing a mood of acute melancholy, most notably when she shows the reader an elegiac sampler she stitched while mourning her mother. Ecstasy or agony, she suggests, can be associated not only with everyday objects but also with mundane acts. "Go out and walk. That is the glory of life," she exhorts her reader. "Watching a person eat soup can break your heart," she scrawls beneath an image of an antique spoon, a statement that will resonate with anyone who has watched an elderly person or a toddler struggling to feed herself without assistance.
Like many of us, Kalman seems to wish she could slow time. And in this idiosyncratic inventory of favorite things, she offers suggestions on how to do so (a good way to start is with a "Book. Calming object."). With diffidence and delicacy, Kalman reminds us to savor an essential, precious truth: "We are alive."