Saturday, December 06, 2008

Scrapbooks: An American History
by Jessica Helfand
Yale Press

Helfand writes a fascinating interpretive history of the changing nature of scrapbooks in America, while following individual stories (and scrapbooks) for what they tell us about people in these times, from the late 19th century to the present revival of what is inevitably called "scrapbooking."

The volume is illustrated with scrapbook pages, or maybe it's more accurate to say that the graphic designed scrapbook pages are surrounded by columns of print. The scrapbooks include photos, souvenirs (leaves, motel keys) and oddities like stains and their matching stain-removers. They chronicle courtships and marriages (and one divorce), travels, wars, and everyday lives.

There are some famous names--Zelda Fitzgerald perhaps the most provocative, but poet Ann Sexton's may be the best at suggesting the creative role of keeping a scrapbook. But most of the people are unknown--mainly women (and mostly southern), but also some men, including soldiers.

Helfand includes different kinds of scrapbooks, like baby books, which are all legacies to the families involved, as well as social documents and (she argues) graphic art of a kind.

This volume is about the size of a scrapbook, but it's a hardback of coffee table book dimension. It's physically as well as intellectually weighty, so whether the clarity of illustrations and the design compensates for the book's unwieldiness is best judged by the individual book buyer. The writing however is graceful, and not academic: intelligent, oblique at times, but always lively and engaged. Some of the people (and their scrapbooks) make for absorbing stories.

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