On a warm morning last September, a dozen Herero men and women paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan. The men wore dark suits and ties, like guests at a funeral. The women wore colorful dresses and hats, following a tradition from Namibia, their home country, in southern Africa. They had come to view relics of a tragic episode in their nation’s history, and to ask the museum, after almost a century, to give them back.
Kavemuii Murangi, an education researcher who lives in Maryland, arrived wearing a gray suit and dark glasses that hid his gentle eyes. Inside the museum, several curators led Murangi and his companions to a private room upstairs. A table was covered with cardboard boxes, which the curators invited them to open when they felt ready. Inside the boxes were human skulls and skeletons. On many of the skulls, four-digit numbers had been scrawled above the eye sockets. Many of the visitors wept at the sight. “We looked at each other, we talked to each other, we hugged each other,” Murangi told me afterward. They were staring at remains of their own people.
Two memoirs of the past year left me spellbound. They have much in common—Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me both deal with longing to be understood and fighting the instinct to try to disappear. They both explore themes of love, desire, and identity, and, to varying degrees, trauma and its aftermath. They are both achingly honest and vulnerable.
But the spellbinding nature of these books has everything to do with language; both use repetition as a literary device to achieve a lyricism, rhythm, and resonance that build power.
When James Hyman was a scriptwriter at MTV Europe, in the 1990s, before the rise of the internet, there was a practical — as well as compulsive — reason he amassed an enormous collection of magazines. “If you’re interviewing David Bowie, you don’t want to be like, ‘O.K., mate, what’s your favorite color?’,” he said. “You want to go through all the magazines and be able to say, ‘Talk about when you did the Nazi salute at Paddington Station in 1976.’ You want to be like a lawyer when he preps his case.”
Whenever possible, Mr. Hyman tried to keep two copies of each magazine he acquired. One pristine copy was for his nascent magazine collection and another was for general circulation among his colleagues, marked with his name to ensure it found its way back to him. The magazines he used to research features on musicians and bands formed the early core of what became the Hyman Archive, which now contains approximately 160,000 magazines, most of which are not digitally archived or anywhere on the internet.
If you are, like me, entirely paranoid about preserving the integrity of your hearing, and if you also live in a midsize or large city, you have likely realized that true quiet—much like true darkness—is in horrifyingly short supply. Sirens, idling trucks, other people’s irate phone calls, crying babies, construction crews cracking up the pavement, lonesome dogs tied to fence posts, buskers whacking upturned plastic buckets, the gruesome screech of subway brakes: it is an ugly and relentless symphony. Some days, I calm down only by locking the door to my apartment, slapping on my noise-cancelling headphones, and comparing prices for plane tickets to the quietest places on Earth (a nature reserve in Russia, a cenote on the Yucatán Peninsula, a national park in Botswana).
But as a vision of the collective that is carefully attuned to the importance of the ties that bind us to each other, and to our world, it is nonetheless moving and compelling.