We read to remember, and we write to remember. You could say that every book ever written is a monument to something–a story, an argument, a relationship, a discovery. Words are headstones, each page a graveyard. Colin Rafferty’s new essay collection, Hallow This Ground (Indiana University Press, 2016), is a monument to monuments, a relic of the author’s “fascination with the scene of the crime, with the sites of history and what remains there.” In his introduction, Rafferty describes himself as “an observer trying to consider the significance of how we remember, to watch the twentieth century’s mad rush to commemorate itself.” With lyricism and infectious curiosity, Rafferty takes his reader sight-seeing, some stops expected (Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, the National Mall in Washington D.C.) others not (a strip club, the library at Columbine High School). A trio of Holocaust essays forms the molten core of a masterful collection that gives equal weight to personal history and what’s written in textbooks.
As to be expected from a book released under Michael Martone’s Break Away Books series, the collection takes impressive risks with form, notably in an essay titled “This Day in History,” which is structured around actual design proposals for the 9/11 memorial in New York City. A monument can take so many forms, as can the essay. Careful not to lean on experimentation as crutch, Rafferty avoids gimmickry with shimmering prose, more than capable of standing on its own.
The back cover classifies the book as both “Essays” and “Memoir,” a duality Rafferty addresses head-on, but I would add another category to the list. Hallow This Ground is, from the dedication page to the last, a love story in the most traditional sense. The reader is witness to a remarkable romance that weathers both personal and national tragedies. “We think of history as a colossus, a giant force sweeping the universe along,” Rafferty writes, “but the human scope of it is amazingly small.”
In the face of rash digitization, Hallow This Ground is a testament to materiality. The tweets and Facebook posts we share after every mass shooting and natural disaster only stay up for a few days, eventually buried deep into the ether. Rafferty writes, “Only when erasure has taken place does memorializing become necessary.” Ubiquitous screens aside, we continue to make grief tangible. Because even years, decades, centuries later, you can, and you must, still remember—by walking across a battlefield, by craning your neck at the sight of an oblisk, by running your fingers over an etched name, by holding a book in your hands.
Susannah Clark is the Managing Editor of The Collapsar.