The brevity of history

Sam Smith – As I enjoy my eighth decade on this planet, one thing that has struck me is that so much  of what happened in the not so distant past seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. I mention someone or some event from a couple of decades ago and and I get a look of unknowingness.  

Being married to an historian, this reaction doesn’t surprise me for things that happened say a century ago, but I have assumed that some of my favorite writers, musicians and political figures would have a better standing in the present. In fact, it turns out that slavery is not the only history we ignore, just about everything else is as well.

To test this out, I went to Google Books Ngram viewer, which tracks mentions in books over time. Here is how often some of the characters I admire were cited in books in 2019 compared to their peak year:

  • Eugene McCarthy 20%
  • HL Mencken 17%
  • Louis Armstrong 27%
  • Martin Luther King 60%
  • EB White 10%

Even “famous” writers like Mencken and White lose attention faster than one might expect. And King, albeit book cited more often, is barely mentioned in current news coverage on racism. On the other hand, the phenomenon does fit well with the assumption marketed by modern media that the only thing that matters is what is happening now.

I know about this in part because in the late 1950s I started out as a radio reporter sometimes writing nine newscasts a day. By the 6 pm edition, many of the morning items had disappeared. They were no longer news.

Interestingly, even slavery has felt this effect. The Google Books Ngram viewer finds the term peaking in 1863 and then plunging 67% by 1872, about the same status that it has now.

A friend has lately taken over a small town historical society and this got me thinking about how local history competes with what’s happening now. It’s a struggle and one suggestion I’ve offered is that they might blend the current culture and the past history of the town to make it more interesting to many. By joining past and present stories one might make the former more appealing.

In fact, in the end it’s often not the facts or the timeframe that gets to folks, but wrapping them in good stories. Which Is one reason I became a reporter, I like to tell stories whenever they happened.