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Dispatches from the present

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A Lost Language

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One year ends. Another begins. For a few weeks during the transition, the media takes stock. The New York Times describes the previous twelve months by means of graphics and food and global affairs. It lists the stories that were popular, and those that “didn’t get as much attention as they deserved.” The Washington Post remembers the past year via lies and good news. BuzzFeed reminds us of what we’ve already forgotten. Then there are the lists. Critics decree which art and culture we’ll carry with us into the future. Have we read, seen, watched, tasted? If not, too late—more content is already being released.

The retrospectives aren’t perfect. But they’re understandable. We’re all attempting to make sense of what’s just happened before we take on more time, which at least to me feels heavy in these early, gray-skied weeks of a new year. As 2021 becomes 2022, I feel like a ship taking on ballast: another year of past to carry! But what is the weight, exactly? What have I learned, suffered and enjoyed? What actually mattered, to me and to “the world”? What will I remember a decade or two or three from now?

In her new book, Trapped In the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory, Colette Brooks accuses Americans: we are a forgetful people. The act of remembering, she claims, is “slipping into cultural obsolescence.” We have much to learn from the past, even only the most recent century, and especially when it comes to our country’s shames—mass shootings and war, pandemic and surveillance capitalism. There are old photographs to study, and documents to read, and elders of whom to ask questions. There are phrases—thank you for your service, turn back the clock—to be mined for meaning. Perhaps if we can understand the origins of our problems, even simply our speech, we’d be more likely to find solutions. Brooks is firm, but not didactic; her recollections are organized in fragments, not blocks of argument. The book itself should be read less as a treatise and more as a metatext, a model of thinking. It takes its time in the past and makes connections to the present, an example of what Brooks would have us all do.

First: make the familiar strange. By retelling stories from their beginnings and pulling out particular details, Brooks doesn’t allow readers to take known events—the UT Austin shooting, the Kennedy assassination, Sandy Hook, the 1918 flu pandemic—for granted. Can you believe that only two cops and a civilian climbed to the top of the tower to stop Charles Whitman? There was no SWAT team, no strategy back then for “someone just taking shots at strangers.” Now, “saturation coverage” of violence is the norm. But in 1963, when Walter Cronkite interrupted As the World Turns and an instant-coffee commercial to announce that the president had been shot: well, Americans had never seen anything like it. The Sandy Hook shooter, Brooks reminds us, lived in a house with “pale yellow wooden siding,” extremely clean, containing cookbooks and Red Sox memorabilia. He killed his mother first. I’d forgotten that. How had I forgotten, already? Before March 2020, grocery workers weren’t called essential. That I’d kind of forgotten, too. We think, Brooks shows us again and again, that this is just the way things are: the fear of nuclear attack, the ever-ticking Doomsday Clock, a government that listens to our phones and reads our messages, income inequality. In fact, none of it had to be this way. And patterns can be discerned. “In a nation prone to forgetfulness,” Brooks argues, “the most useful formulation going forward may be a phrase… Here we go again.”

Brooks also makes the strange familiar. She connects the writings of obsessive twentieth-century diarists—recording conversations and conjectures and even their macaroni-and-cheese dinners—to our contemporary need to document ourselves online. “Diarists from the twenty-first century on (now journaling or blogging) would find themselves practicing an antiquated art,” she writes. They are “insisting, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that disclosures could be voluntary, that the individual life could be separated out from the aggregate, that people weren’t just data points.” She follows up this claim with a section on statistics. Here’s everything “they” know: our thoughts on immigration and vaccines, whether we buy potato chips, how likely we are to die doing a certain activity. But of course, “every statistic can be unpacked so that the story at its heart emerges, like a lost language one has to relearn.”

Turns out, that lost language is Brooks’s native tongue. Even as she documents decades of collective history, she also features characters that mean something to her alone—a connection the reader doesn’t fully make until the acknowledgments section at the end of the book. There’s one chapter on a navy recruit, Jimmy, who participates in the end of the World War II as part of the force that occupies Japan after the A-bomb is dropped. Jimmy was Brooks’s uncle; he passed on his wartime scrapbook, full of sick-bay slips and chits for ice cream, in the hopes that she would “someday tell his story.” Later, there’s a chapter on a woman with breast cancer. She’s divorced, and living on food stamps. But these facts don’t tell the whole story of her love for one of her sons. She knew he liked football cards and “vegetable lo mein without the vegetables.” Together, they build a condo for his pet hamster, and watch the Great Comet of 1997. She dies on Easter Sunday; he dies young “by broken heart.” There are no statistics for this kind of passing, Brooks acknowledges. The boy, who was her nephew, is instead documented as an alcohol-related fatality. The woman with cancer was Brooks’s sister, and her kindness doesn’t show up on any death certificate.

We can’t do the work of collective remembrance, then, without making personal connections. The media’s yearly retrospectives merely present our data: what trended, what we clicked. But we must always evaluate the aggregate for ourselves. Where was I? How did that feel to me, and those I loved? That’s not selfish. It’s only human. We create memory within communities and in places, not in isolation and on screens. We decide what ultimately mattered to us not by decree, but by discernment.

The final section of Trapped is a series of photographs, many taken by Brooks herself. All of them, it seems, mean something to her, indicating stories at the edges of the book. Exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The wreckage of Paradise, California. A parade. And most explicitly, family portraits: a grandmother, a sister, the author herself, outside the frame. How does it all fit together? What’s the exact connection between the personal and political, what’s already happened and what’s to come? No matter. Snapshot, Brooks writes, was originally a term devised to convince a camera-buying public to take unfocused, bad pictures—“skill didn’t matter as much as the act of memorializing itself.”