Memories of Things Past

There are many kinds of memories: fresh, old, good, bad, repressed, false, photographic, individual, collective. Libraries and archives, no matter the types, are all involved in their preservation and dissemination. As individuals we struggle to remember what is important to us while often forgetting the everyday details. We “put things on paper” because our own memories are fallible, and in our age, there is so much to keep track of.

The book that got me interested in the topic of memory was The last of the doughboys: the forgotten generation and their forgotten world war. Starting his search in 2003, Richard Rubin set about locating and interviewing the last surviving American veterans of the First World War in order to preserve their wartime memories before that living history disappeared. Attempting to record the personal stories of people who were all over 100 years old presented special challenges for the author, and he is as much part of the story as the tales of the men who went “Over There.” The “Great War” has been somewhat overshadowed by the events of the 20th century and this work of remembrance is a treasure of rare testimonials of a period which has literally gone into history, and is told in a very pleasant manner.

Researching one’s genealogy and writing your family history is about preserving the memory of our ancestors for future generations. Thanks to new technology, there more ways for people to not only find genealogical documents but also organize and preserve them. The Winnipeg library has an extensive collection of books on genealogy, but a new arrival, How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn how to preserve family photos, memorabilia & genealogy records focuses on preservation and proposes methods of how to be your own family’s curator. It discusses classification and digitization methods for paper documents, the best materials to use to preserve heirlooms and photographs (and what to donate or discard), and presents online resources to use to create your family tree.

As with the body, there are ways we can help keep our minds sharp and healthy, and resources available at the library to do so. Max your memory: the complete visual program by Pascale Michelon or Total Memory Makeover by Marilu Henner are two recent library titles that instruct readers how memory works and offer exercises and methods to boost your mental capacity. The former title is recommended for those who like quick reads as it is easy to read, full of visual examples with short text, and the exercises are fun to do. The latter title requires more commitment, as the author, who has the merit of being one of a handful of people who have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memories (in effect, she can recall the vast majority of her personal experiences), invites readers to view the pursuit of boosting their memory as part of a larger plan to change their lives for the better. In addition to memory exercises, the book is about Marilu’s own life experiences, so it reads like an autobiography.

The fear of losing our memory or having it altered is a recurring theme of fiction because it is very much a part of ourselves. We are, in a real sense, the sum of our memories. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson is a story of a woman who has lost decades of her life’s memories after an accident stripped her of her ability to retain new memories, forgetting every day’s events when going to sleep. With the help of a therapist and a journal she attempts to reconstruct the person she has become, and find out if the person who calls himself her husband can be trusted. The story is both a thriller and a testimonial of a person living with a debilitating condition.

Movies like the Jason Bourne series, Total Recall and even The Matrix, play with the idea of highly-trained operatives whose memories have been tampered with in order to make them easier to manipulate by sinister forces with unclear agendas. Outside of the action sequences, these movies’ main focus is the hero’s quest to recover their identity and uncover the truth about where they fit in the world.

Memento is an especially interesting movie, which although not new (2001), I highly recommend for its original execution and gripping storyline. The plot involves a man trying to find the murderer of his wife, while he himself cannot form any memories since the night of the murder due to injuries he suffered during the attack. He has to rely on photographs, notes and tattoos to keep going forward. The structure of the film puts the viewer in the same situation as the protagonist. The movie does not follow the usual structure but alternates between two timelines: the main one in reverse chronological order, interspersed with short black-and-white segments. We therefore experience “the present” in short bursts, always disoriented and always having to guess what is going on.

That’s all I can remember right now. Please feel free to add your own memories.


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