I never would have guessed that an in-flight magazine would lead to one of the most thought-provoking reading experiences in my life.
But here I am, thoroughly moved by the new book, Here Is Where, by Andrew Carroll — and I owe it all to US Airways Magazine.
I mentioned three weeks ago how I picked up the in-flight mag out of boredom and wound up reading — and being engrossed by — the abridged introduction to Carroll’s latest book. Here Is Where, he offered, would detail the forgotten stories that make up the fabric of America; Carroll traveled to the sites and cities where each of these stories took place.
I got home that night, purchased Here Is Where, and started reading it while on vacation last week. I finished it last night, having wolfed down chapters like Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
And, unlike after eating a dozen Krispy Kremes, I feel energized, hungry, and genuinely moved.
I originally purchased Carroll’s book for two reasons. The first? His ability to craft an absorbing story. Carroll lured me in with his introduction, teasing me with details and rewarding me with a solid pay-off; I knew I would be in for a treat, no matter the topic.
And I was right. Carroll is a phenomenal storyteller, and he elevates certain anecdotes simply on the strength of his writing. I especially found this in his chapter about a not-so-famous airplane hijacking in the mid-1970s, which played a large part in the creation of many of the air travel security measures in place today. Carroll keeps peppering the tale with surprises, turning an already interesting story into one of the book’s most memorable. Even some of his throwaway bits work, like when he gets a speeding ticket and wonders who came up with the idea for cruise control — only to find the answer later in the chapter, thanks to his research.
But my second reason for buying Here Is Where? Precisely, the topic. In his intro Carroll tells true stories about presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, his brother and noted Shakespearean actor Edwin, and Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the President who wound up linked to both Booths. I could not have cared less about these men before reading Carroll’s introduction, but I found their stories significant because they felt like forgotten pieces of the past, the building blocks of our lives that fall out of sight as the tower of history gets larger.
Carroll feels the same way — and puts together a mammoth tome that celebrates these stories while simultaneously underscoring their ephemerality.
There’s the story of Irene Morgan, who refused to give up her seat on the bus eleven years before Rosa Parks did it. There’s the story of Niihau, a small Hawaiian island that unwittingly became the catalyst for Japanese internment policies during World War II. Perhaps Carroll’s book will springboard these anecdotes back into popular culture; perhaps not. Either way, the stories have happened, the people have existed, and our lives have been directly affected.
And here’s the beauty of the book: even if you do not remember each of the individual anecdotes, you will gain such a vivid picture of our history from the totality of them. If you are like me, you will not be able to escape several haunting realizations.
First, we live in an ever-changing world that is nowhere near as stable as it seems. We believe in certain ideas as gospel, from the foundations of our country to the power of medicine. But try holding true to these bedrocks when Carroll keeps showing their fragility. Read about the absurd way in which laughing gas was discovered and then developed, and realize that it is less than two centuries old. Learn about how George Washington — our first president, mind you — went to great lengths to try to retrieve one of his slaves.
I mentioned earlier “the tower of history”; this book shows how many of those building blocks are not nearly as sturdy as we might like. As Carroll illustrates so poignantly, we as a people are forever evolving.
That ties into my second realization: we are not too far removed from some hideous history. Carroll has a whole section titled “This Land Is My Land: The Dark Side of Expansion and Growth”. He uncovers stories of a one-time sterilization center in Sonoma, a 19th-century riot against Chinese workers in Wyoming, and a routine in which orphaned children were shipped across the country in search of adults who would take them, many of whom put the kids the work in unfit conditions.
The fact is, we are historically linked to all of this. We are separated from these atrocities by few generations. I think we all understand this on a theoretical level, but Carroll puts it into specific, shocking context.
Finally, on a bigger scale, Here Is Where demonstrates that, yes, we really are all linked — in it together, if you will. So much of our own significance depends on events that could have easily failed to happen. I think of my hallowed profession: broadcast journalism. How can anyone truly claim to expect this business to be stable, when it is — compared to the rest of our world’s history — so young? How can anyone claim to have figured out an industry that is still, in many ways, in its infancy? As Carroll points out, would broadcast journalism even exist if not for the discoveries nearly a century ago by Philo Farnsworth?
Frankly, but for a few very specific industries — medicine, science, and politician among them — this world has seen scant consistency in its long history.
Now that I have said all that, let me say this: Here Is Where is by no means a perfect book. For starters, it runs pretty long at more than 450 pages, and Carroll could have made just as effective a tome by cutting 25% of his chapters. Also, while Carroll makes a strong case for why he needed to incorporate his travels and adventures into the book, I often found his personal travelogues to be unnecessary distractions from the more engrossing, larger questions raised in his forgotten tales of history.
But Here Is Where is absolutely worth a read. It is the first book I can remember that captivated me with its content while truly making me think about larger, cosmic concepts and connecting me with history in a way that seemed real and palpable.
Thanks, US Airways Magazine. And thanks to Andrew Carroll for a brilliant piece of literature.
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at email@example.com.