Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres & Total Flops by Neil Steinberg, 1994.
"Tragically Defunct: Product Failure" is about the endless parade of new consumer products that appear and then vanish. You probably have heard some of these stories before: R.J. Reynolds' smokeless cigarette, Premier; the Edsel; Heublein's Wine & Dine dinners (with a bottle of cooking wine that people thought was for drinking). What makes Steinberg's essay so hilarious is the combination of his strengths. His research is thorough, resulting in many stories that you haven't heard before, and in details that flesh out the familiar ones so that they come to life instead of feeling like hand-me-downs. He uses structure beautifully, bookending a visit to the New Products Showcase and Learning Center (a "museum" of failed products) with personal anecdotes about finding an old bottle of 7-Up and regretting a lost Cracker Jack toy. Steinberg excels at tying together autobiographical details, facts in the story he's reporting, and more general philosophical musings--hard to pull off smoothly. He feels that objects have a personality (as do I), and he manages to communicate that personality in a few well-chosen words (like describing Hostess Sno balls "hunched there in the store"). Finally, he writes beautifully--a master of clarity and le mot juste, with a distinctive voice.
Here are some bits I find particularly funny. On Ronson's attempt to sell a butane-fueled "candle":
If only a way could be found to get people to burn their lighters continuously, for hours at at time. Think of the butane they'd use.
What would you call a lighter that needed to be lit for long stretches? Of course--a candle.
You have to admire such yearning, wistful greed--it's as if a margarine company started dipping their product in chocolate and selling it in the freezer section along with Eskimo Pies and Popsicles.
On failed food products:
...Reddi Whip, forgetting how closely its name was linked to fake whipped cream, introduced Reddi Bacon--precooked bacon in a foil pouch to be dropped into the toaster. But the two products did not sit well together on the plate of the mind, and consumers rejected the newer one. Also, fat from the packet dripped into the toaster and caught fire, a common problem for failed toaster products. The Electric French Fry, a board of fries popped into the toaster, then broken apart for eating, did the same thing. Downyflake Toaster Eggs didn't burn. They were just disgusting.
I note now that Steinberg mentions Nicholson Baker, whom I hadn't heard of when I first read this essay. Next-best chapter is on the National Spelling Bee, which he nails as a horrible ritual symbolic of mass education: "Not only does just one child out of 9,000,000 win, but the 8.999,999 losers lose in a public and humiliating fashion." I thought of this essay a lot when I saw the (wonderful) movie Spellbound. Other chapters discuss the conquest of Everest, perpetual motion machines, people who succeed too young, and much more. It's consistently entertaining and frequently thought-provoking, even profound. Just a great, great book, and one that that I revisit with fresh pleasure and new insights each time.