I’ve spent the past few weeks going through diaries and scrapbooks that my mother left behind. They are humorous, compelling, revealing. I am getting to know her as a teenager, a college student, a young married woman — the person she was before I was born.
In assembling her documents and those of dozens of other family members into some kind of order, my goal is to create a history that tells my family’s stories so they will not be forgotten.
It is interesting, exhausting, and surprising work that is full of fresh discovery. It is also essential.
Recently, I read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book — a book about libraries in general, the Los Angeles Public Library, in particular, and the 1986 fire that destroyed 400,000 of its books. It’s a fascinating, interesting read. I learned a lot about books and libraries that I didn’t know. (Any bibliophile would enjoy this book.)
In her preface, Olean lays out her reason for preserving past histories. I’ll quote it here because she said it better than I could. (Emphases are my own.)
“The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten—that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”*
I love this passage. It resonates with me as I comb through my family’s past. And it inspires me.
Writers are especially adept at doing this, preserving memory. Words gathered into books is our best medium and our best platform for this deliberate act. Writing for the future is — in many ways — our mission. Of course, our purpose is also to stir curiosity, to stimulate thought, to spark imagination, to foster discussion, to entertain, to provoke, to amaze, and so on and so on and so on. But memory is always key to what we do. We want our words to linger, to sit and ruminate in other people’s brains.
To make a difference. To last.
As I pursue my family’s past and its “constantly refreshed future” and as I shape it into words and paragraphs and chapters, I have one goal in mind: To persist forever in someone’s memory.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean