Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

April 22nd, 2020

This book, subtitled “A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,” is largely but not entirely about automata, and also about the experience of the uncanny—often as it relates to the distinction between humans and robots or humans and dolls. The five chapters proceed chronologically from Jacques de Vaucanson (born in 1709) to the four siblings who performed as the Doll Family (the last of whom died in 2004), with chapters on Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess player (built in 1789), Edison’s talking doll (which he worked on in the late 1800s) and Georges Méliès’s films (from the late 1800s and early 1900s) in between.

I liked learning more about things I’d heard of but hadn’t read about in depth, like Vaucanson’s mechanical duck or Kempelen’s chess player, and it was neat to read about their creators and the larger context in which these objects were made, and also to read about what happened to these objects after their creators’ lifetimes. I was more interested in the straight-up historical sections, less interested in things like a psychoanalytic interpretation of the game of chess, and Wood’s style sometimes struck me as overly sensationalistic, like when she makes much of a letter one of Edison’s employees sent saying he would have a Parisian doll-maker send some doll bodies to “experiment with”: “Sinister overtones impose themselves on the practical matters detailed in these letters,” Wood writes, and goes on to ask “what kind of ‘experiment'” the letter-writer had in mind (145)—though it’s pretty clear the experiment was about whether the phonographs Edison wanted to use for his talking dolls could be fitted into the normal papier-mâché bodies made by European doll-makers. The chapter on Edison was interesting overall though, particularly the descriptions of Edison’s 1887 laboratory, which is now “a museum, a frozen piece of industrial life, all wheels and pulleys and vices and clocks” (107). (Meanwhile, you can hear Edison’s doll online: yikes. Less alarming: The Man with the Rubber Head, which was probably my favorite of the Méliès pieces I watched as a result of this book.) The chapter on the Doll family felt a little out of place, but it was interesting too, and I’m generally happy to read about circus history and Coney Island (that chapter has a great description of Luna Park in it).

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