The appeal of these stories may seem counterintuitive: shouldn’t repetition, by its nature, be boring? Why do we seek out narratives that not only repeat themselves, but feature repetition as an anchoring principle of their structure? As a linguist and novelist, I believe that the answer lies in the process by which readers construct meaning from texts. Time loops, it turns out, are perfect for hacking this process to deliver a hefty intellectual and emotional impact within a tight narrative framework.
The period from 1916 to 1920 marked the last point in which a major reversal in global life expectancy would be recorded. (During World War II, life expectancy did briefly decline, but with nowhere near the severity of the collapse during the Great Influenza.) The descendants of English and Welsh babies born in 1918, who on average lived just 41 years, today enjoy life expectancies in the 80s. And while Western nations surged far ahead in average life span during the first half of the last century, other nations have caught up in recent decades, with China and India having recorded what almost certainly rank as the fastest gains of any society in history. A hundred years ago, an impoverished resident of Bombay or Delhi would beat the odds simply by surviving into his or her late 20s. Today average life expectancy in India is roughly 70 years.
In effect, during the century since the end of the Great Influenza outbreak, the average human life span has doubled. There are few measures of human progress more astonishing than this. If you were to publish a newspaper that came out just once a century, the banner headline surely would — or should — be the declaration of this incredible feat. But of course, the story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment. That is, the story of our extra life is a story of progress in its usual form: brilliant ideas and collaborations unfolding far from the spotlight of public attention, setting in motion incremental improvements that take decades to display their true magnitude.
Beal buried the bottles in the ground, keeping the location private so it wouldn't get disturbed. Every five years, he dug up one bottle and checked to see if the seeds inside would germinate. In 1910, when Beal retired, he passed on the experiment to a colleague, who later passed it on to a colleague, and so on.
The study has lasted far longer than Beal intended, because its caretakers decided to stretch it out. Instead of every five years, they switched to digging up a bottle every ten years. Then, every 20 years. Telewski helped unearth a bottle in 2000, when he took over the experiment from a colleague. That year, only a couple of different weeds were still able to sprout from seed.
In the twists and turns of the narrative, Macneal explores what it means to exert power over another individual.
Nothing is comfortable in these essays, which labor through the muddy waters of intergenerational trauma, imperialism, capitalism and misogyny, using popular culture (“Twin Peaks,” Tarot cards, the video game “Red Dead Redemption 2”) as navigational tools. Even magic has been colonized by settlers, in the form of Twitter horoscopes, Instagram witches and the wellness industry. “I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left,” she reflects. But this book is not about despair; it’s about sifting through the broken shards of culture, looking for messages to restore one’s spirit.
The word obsession is overused. People say they are obsessed with something when what they mean is they have a passing interest. But Jennifer Lucy Allan is truly obsessed with foghorns, those obsolete warning honks around our coasts – not to be confused with ships’ horns. This esoteric obsession has taken her from Shetland to San Francisco, to a PhD on foghorns, a radio programme and now this original and absorbing book, which is much more interesting than a study of foghorns has any right to be.