Ages ago, when the world was yet young, King Freraine of the land of Burgvart found himself troubled in mind, for the Nefarious did menace his land, and his people were sore afraid. His noblemen and courtiers gathered about him, crying in loud voices, "Sire! Lead thy troops forth to battle, lest the Nefarious come and rend our sheep to kittens!" Yet Freraine held back, for the Nefarious was mighty, and he feared for his life. Then the fist of wisdom struck him, and he said, "Lo! Let Pethuel, who is my younger brother, go to battle the Nefarious, for it is not meet that a king should keep all glory to himself." And Pethuel went forth against the Nefarious, and triumphed mightily indeed, for he was neither sheep nor kitten and thus could not be rent. And it was handed down as a law throughout the ages, that whenever some great task is to be done, it shall be the younger brother that performeth it.
--The Great and Ancient Tome of Oddly Apposite Anecdotes
The toaster is a fascinating subject for contemplation, for many of the same reasons that it is contemplated so little. It is ubiquitous in our society; a home without a toaster is simply not a home. Yet, there is an aura of superfluity about it; the toaster is a vaguely ridiculous item, in a sense that a refrigerator, perhaps, or a stove (the toaster's elder brother) is not. Part of this is simply the appearance of the beast. A toaster has neither the imposing bulk of the larger appliances, nor the technological mystery of the microwave oven, nor the unavoidable acoustic presence of a blender; it is simply a small box that gets hot when you push the switch down. A deeper absurdity, however, lies in the fact that the toaster, as we, deep in our collective subconscious, know, is fundamentally a more or less useless item. If, tomorrow, some dreadful toaster virus were to be unleashed, wiping out every single toaster on the face of the earth forever, no one would suffer in any real sense. Those truly dedicated to the ritual of morning toast would improvise with ovens or microwaves; the majority, however, would simply adapt themselves to eating untoasted bread in the morning. After a few years, no one would even remember what a toaster was.
What, then, does it say about our society, that something so unnecessary should be found in every kitchen, every department store, every screen saver? Does it, perhaps, mean that we are becoming addicted to convenience, that we are the simultaneous perpetrators and victims of a consumerist plague, a twisted outgrowth of capitalism run amok? It is, after all, not merely the toaster which is superfluous in our society; consider, for a moment, the computer upon which I am writing this humble essay. If I did not have so convenient and user-friendly a platform to use; if, say, computer technology were still at the level it was ten years ago; what then? Would I have been any less capable of producing this? No. Then why should these extravagances of modern life be permitted to exist? Should we not melt down our toasters, and rid the world of this waste of our time and energy and good, soft bread?
Of course not. Toasters, for all their humility and prosaicness, are in their own way beautiful; a simple statement of function (however trivial) unified with form; a simple, elegant solution to a simple problem. To destroy the toaster, to declare war on all it represents, is to deny the most fundamental quest of the human spirit; the teeming and boundless desire to exert some small control over some portion of the universe, to be able to say, "Perhaps I cannot rearrange the stars in their course or bring peace to the entire world, but, by Heaven, I can make toast." Beware those who belittle the toaster; beware those who say that the bare means of survival are all that matter and all that should, for they have given in to the absurdity of the universe. Toasters are the meaning of life. That's all you need to know.
Last updated December 9, 2003 by Joel Rod (joelrod at mac dot com). Originally published as a fill-in for my brother's column in the Wartburg College Trumpet back in the fall of 1994.