The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption
Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores our obsession with gorgeous things, unveiling the fraught histories of makeup, flowers, perfume, silk, and other beautiful objects.
April recommended reading by the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, Goodreads, Jezebel, Christian Science Monitor, All Arts, and the Next Big Idea Club
One of Curbed’s and Globe and Mail’s (Toronto) best books of the spring
A most anticipated book of 2023 by The Millions
Katy Kelleher has spent much of her life chasing beauty. As a child, she uprooted handfuls of purple, fragrant little flowers from the earth, plucked iridescent seashells from the beach, and dug for turquoise stones in her backyard. As a teenager she applied glittery shimmer to her eyelids after religiously dabbing on her signature scent of orange blossoms and jasmine. And as an adult, she coveted gleaming marble countertops and delicate porcelain to beautify her home. This obsession with beauty led her to become a home, garden, and design writer, where she studied how beautiful things are mined, grown, made, and enhanced. In researching these objects, Kelleher concluded that most of us are blind to the true cost of our desires. Because whenever you find something unbearably beautiful, look closer, and you’ll inevitably find a shadow of decay lurking underneath.
In these dazzling and deeply researched essays, Katy Kelleher blends science, history, and memoir to uncover the dark underbellies of our favorite goods. She reveals the crushed beetle shells in our lipstick, the musk of rodents in our perfume, and the burnt cow bones baked into our dishware. She untangles the secret history of silk and muses on her problematic prom dress. She tells the story of countless workers dying in their efforts to bring us shiny rocks from unsafe mines that shatter and wound the earth, all because a diamond company created a compelling ad. She examines the enduring appeal of the beautiful dead girl and the sad fate of the ugly mollusk. With prose as stunning as the objects she describes, Kelleher invites readers to examine their own relationships with the beautiful objects that adorn their body and grace their homes.
And yet, Kelleher argues that while we have a moral imperative to understand our relationship to desire, we are not evil or weak for desiring beauty. The Ugly History of Beautiful Things opens our eyes to beauty that surrounds us, helps us understand how that beauty came to be, what price was paid and by whom, and how we can most ethically partake in the beauty of the world.
Praise for The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption
“Rigorous and lavish…it is sumptuous text, full of delicious facts and sharp meditations.”—Washington Post
“The Ugly History of Beautiful Things is an installment in the vanishingly rare and valuable genre of decidedly non-self-help books that nonetheless contain truly helpful ideas about how to live.”—The Atlantic
“[Kelleher] has a knack for nimbly threading together her own memories and tastes with the histories of the objects themselves”—New York Times Book Review
“A lovely book… the major pleasure in reading it is anticipating Kelleher's next turns. Kelleher writes patiently, painstakingly, with a sense of unfurling not unlike the meticulous act of plucking petals, one by one, to discover what lies underneath.”—Star Tribune
“Deeply fascinating essays…Kelleher’s message is ultimately a hopeful one: There is plenty of pleasure to be had by honing your eye to see an object of beauty instead of rushing to own it.” —Curbed
“Stunning in its prose…by book’s end, I got the sense that I’d spent 10 chapters with someone who experiences life so fully and with such agony that even shiny ornaments have the power to bewitch and undo her.” —Jezebel
“[Kelleher’s] extensive research and magical prose make the book almost impossible to put down.” —Maine Home + Design
“There are writers you want to read on every subject, because they are able to whip up such stylish, intricate, and sparkling prose that they elevate every paragraph to an event. Katy Kelleher is such a writer – her sentences are as beautiful as the diamonds and marble surfaces she writes about, but contain far more depth. Her research shines through every page of this book without ever weighing it down. Kelleher has pulled off a magic trick: she has written a book that is both sumptuous and airy, rich and gossamer. I inhaled it.” —Rachel Syme, Staff Writer, The New Yorker
“A lovely book. Kelleher's voice is curious and full of insight into the often dark histories of the things we call beautiful. By the end of this book, you'll want to go pick some flowers and listen to the ocean out of a conch shell, empowered by the knowledge of where that desire comes from.” —Rax King, Author of Tacky and co-host of the podcast Low Culture Boil
"Fascinating and richly researched. You'll never smell a rose or stroke a silk blouse quite the same way again – even if, like Kelleher, you can’t stop loving them." —Alexandra Lange, author of Meet Me By the Fountain
"Katy Kelleher's The Ugly History of Beautiful Things is an astonishing accomplishment--for its insight, its honesty, and its willingness to ask difficult questions and probe the darkest corners of human nature for the answers. Without judgment or preciousness, Kelleher takes us on a journey into the complexity, power, necessity, and aliveness of beauty. This book's strengths are many, but above all, it is Kelleher's restless, thrilling curiosity itself--which she turns inward as much as outward--that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page." —Chloé Cooper Jones, author of Easy Beauty
“Fascinating, compelling, and at times unnerving–Kelleher's deep dive into the nature of beauty and the material reality that lurks beneath its surface lingers in your mind long after you've put it down.”—Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland
“Kelleher has always been obsessed with beauty, and this poetic book is a careful study of its ambiguity and meaning.” —Kirkus Reviews
"Kelleher’s engrossing essays cogently explore the unsettling dichotomy between the precious and the problematic, the seedy and the sublime to vividly reveal the pleasures and perils in pursuit of ideal beauty. —Booklist (starred review)
“Kelleher eloquently interrogates the allure of luxury items even as she remains clear-eyed about the damaging social expectations that drive their value…The author’s perceptive analysis and self-reflection raise intriguing questions about consumerism, aesthetics, and gendered understandings of beauty. The result is a thoughtful offering as precious as the goods studied.”—Publishers Weekly