Souvenirs 101 – The New York Times

“Souvenir” offers ideas about what may be in play when we seek mementos.

For instance, buying souvenirs may function as part of gift-giving customs, like the Japanese omiyage ritual. Or, the act of shopping for souvenirs may give the traveler a certain comfort: It’s a familiar activity in an unfamiliar place that also allows the traveler to conjure loved ones back home.

Whether purchased or found, procuring a souvenir may also “be a way of slowing down a real-time experience that is by definition ephemeral,” as Mr. Potts puts it. To combat disorientation, “the tourist thus collects mementos as a way of gaining power of moments that he doesn’t fully understand.”

For some, collecting mementos is a way to advertise worldliness, even though as Mr. Potts writes, many souvenirs end up speaking to “stereotypical shorthand rather than lived experience.”

For others, acquiring a souvenir is aspirational. Consider the large clamshell Mr. Potts found at Lake Michigan as a child. He viewed it less a souvenir and more “a totem of faith that I might one day travel beyond the landlocked prairies of my youth, see an actual ocean, collect a real seashell, and journey outward to farther shores.”

Indeed, in the end, “Souvenir” suggests that the meaning of a keepsake is not fixed (its importance to the owner can change over time) and that its significance is bound up in the traveler’s identity. “When we collect souvenirs,” Mr. Potts writes, “we do so not to evaluate the world, but to narrate the self.”

The story begins the moment we take a trinket off a shelf, buy it and walk out of the store. The object can then become part of our personal history, “a way of mythologizing our own lives,” Mr. Potts says. And ever more so in an age of Instagram, he told me recently, when conspicuous consumption plays out in real time, making the objects we choose to keep seem even more personal. He himself has had plenty of keepsakes displayed around his home (more often, he’s on the road) in Kansas — Asian masks, Bacchus beads from New Orleans, pebbles — things that remind him not merely of the places he’s been and the people he’s encountered, but of former life phases.

“Try as I might to articulate to other people the meanings and back stories of these objects,” he writes, “they ultimately exist as a kind of private sign language that only I can understand.”