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Holding History After 2020

I can’t remember the last time I attended a Holding History event: the pandemic disrupted my memory, as it did for many others, and without visual cues, without familiar faces and scenes, without the routine of walking into a room and gazing at old books and talking to strangers, I can’t conjure any of the time before. I only think in general, of those months in lockdown, and the various tasks scattered across my unmeasured days.

Collection of old books on display in the foreground. Speaker giving a lecture to a crowd in the background.

Holding History, the website reminds me, engages in “Bookish Conversations Across Generations.” What are these conversations? At Holding History events a person handles objects from the past, turns them over, flips their pages, listens as they speak through the ink, the materials of the paper, the old leather, the strange calligraphy, the phrases, images, and handwritten notes. In every one of these I have attended—I am starting to remember now—students and community members marvel at how writings and images from back then can speak so immediately to them now. They speak about it, and one growing conversation—a noise growing from the individual conversations amongst people and people and people and books—rises in those carpeted rooms.

After the past year, Holding History may seem superfluous. We have all been living history. And, for most of the pandemic, we would not even be able to open the everyday revelations of those old books: we were restricted. The books lay untouched in dark rooms, like us. But we wanted books, even those of us who did not care before. As it forced us into our homes, the pandemic also forced us into our inner rooms, and we will remember the time as an opportunity to challenge how we saw ourselves and how we arranged our societies and lives. The world—no, the structures, the frenetic habits we imposed on the world—stopped, and we found time, finally, to withdraw into ourselves. This is why book sales increased and why people started exploring new hobbies, finding once again the curiosities they may have lost through the unyielding demands of school, socialization, and work.

Why history if we lived it? Why not gorge ourselves on the present? We have been locked away; there is so much, almost too much, to make up for. I think about this often, and I have struggled of late to sit still and read of before-times. But I hear activists speaking of correcting the past. I see the museum-goers filling the giant halls of the Art Institute, and I watch as they peer over their masks at centuries-old flecks of paint. I have even seen people in the libraries. As the doors to our most ancient artifacts open, we are migrating to them, the past, out of curiosity and wonder, and ignorance, and hope for more mindful, or more perfect, times.

In the past year I set out to read as many new books by prominent international writers as possible, and I found that many of them also flocked to the past for understanding. Maria Stepanova does this after the death of her aunt, which forces her to go through the things of the dead and confront the missing histories of her ancestors, Russian Jews who did not copy down grand narratives of their lives. Daša Drndić’s Belladonna and EEG also contemplate Jewish persecution, and they attempt to observe the violence through small histories and lists of the dead. Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses explores the past through extinct objects and species, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories preserve experiences of war and disaster through a chorus of human voices, and Claudia Rankine’s books, set in a lyrical I and You, preserve the first-person for the marginalized, who through historical and societal injustice becomes categorized, stereotyped, and disregarded.

Person engaging in a paper-making workshop on the library mall.

Each of these works, along with so many others, asks: What do we have to do with the past? What is our relationship to the dead, whose actions shape our societies and lives? What can we do with people’s histories? With the things people leave behind?

No one can answer these questions. They are old and unyielding as the earth. But we ask them as we struggle to make our lives. The books and artifacts that Holding History students lay out on tables at events document a species that will always grapple with its existence and that will etch that metaphysical battle for understanding in words, images, bindings—in physical things.

I remember, now, and I hope we remember the past year, which we have started to move beyond. The pandemic was not all self-improvement. It killed more than three million people worldwide, and many continue to perish. Those it did not kill it debilitated with long-lasting affliction or fear. If there is any solace in the beloveds we lost, it is in the things they left of themselves. And if there is any solace in the times we lost, it is in the things we make to remember them—and cherish them, and grieve them.

Marek Makowski


April 25, 2021

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