Friday, December 20, 2019
December 20, 2019: Book Talk Recaps: The Boston Athenaeum
[Since I’ve been on sabbatical this Fall, in place of my usual semester recaps series I’ll be recapping some of the many book talks I’ve gotten to deliver over the last few months. Leading up to a special weekend post on what’s next for We the People!]
1) Beauty: If giving a talk in a space like this didn’t feel particularly special, I’d be doing something very wrong. Obviously the content and significance of my talks don’t change based on where I’m delivering them, and I’ve never given one where I felt uncomfortable (although the one bookstore, many years ago, where they literally just had a mic in the middle of the store and expected me to step up and start talking with no introduction of any kind was a bit daunting!). But for the sabbatical’s and year’s culminating talk in particular, to be in such a stunning place helped me take a step back and think about the whole series so far, and I’ll always be grateful to have had that moment in this beautiful place (and for the help and support of all the Athenaeum folks, especially Elsa Vernon and Brian the A/V guy).
2) History: The Athenaeum is much more than just a beautiful place, of course—it’s also one of Boston’s most historic spaces, and one of America’s oldest enduring libraries. I felt the presence of that history in many ways, including in the great Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library exhibition (which runs through March and I highly recommend). But by far the most inspiring such historical echo was an entirely unexpected one—I was able to prepare for the talk in a small room adjoining the lecture hall, and that room’s spacious windows looked out directly into the Granary Burying Ground, home to (among other historic landmarks) an obelisk that honors Benjamin Franklin’s parents and a memorial to the Boston Massacre victims (one of whom, Crispus Attucks, I discuss briefly in my talk). A symbolic reminder not just that we are surrounded by our histories, but that we have to keep them in better view if we’re to move forward into any kind of meaningful future.
3) Today: While sharing some of those histories has been my central goal for my book talks (as it was for We the People itself), it will come as no surprise that many of the conversations at and after those talks have focused (as my book’s Conclusion does) on our 2019 moment. At times (including this one) those conversations have felt more like group therapy sessions, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive or negative way at all—god knows we can all use spaces and opportunities for that. But in both the Q&A and at the book signing table, the contemporary conversations at this talk also included more practical and productive ideas about work we can all do going forward, both individually and collectively. And along those lines, it was great to see at the talk folks from organizations that are doing that work, such as Laura Tavares from Facing History and Ourselves and Alison Bassett from The Trustees of Reservations (who are, she told me, planning a 2020 series on defining American identity, for more on which watch this space!). Solidarity is a key element of the work, and I felt it in many ways at the Athenaeum.
Special post this weekend,
PS. Ideas for other places I could talk or write about We the People? Lemme know, and thanks!