Sept. 30 2015 12:19 AM

Great Michigan Read book sparks artifacts discussion

Courtesy photo
The Michigan Humanities Council’s selection for this year’s Great Michigan Read program should generate discussion about what readers consider important in their daily lives.

The selection, post-apocalyptic novel “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel, is set 20 years after a plague-like flu pandemic has nearly wiped humans from the earth. The survivors still have a hard scrabble life, but arts and the humanities have also survived.

The Great Michigan Read program kicks off next week, with Mandel making several stops to discuss her book. At her Oct. 8 stop at the Library of Michigan, Mandel will be interviewed by 2013-2014 Great Michigan Read author Steve Luxenberg. Both authors will be available to sign copies of their books after the event.

“Station Eleven,” a National Book Award finalist, is centered on a troupe of actors and musicians who call themselves the Travelling Symphony. Shakespearean plays become the group’s forte, providing a link to some of the best literature of the pre-apocalypse world.

As the troupe travels through what Mandel describes as an “archipelago of small towns,” one of the company members, Kirsten, carries a Ziploc bag with photographs and other items that link her to a past that is mostly forgotten. A friend calls her an “archaeologist.”

At one of the troupe’s stops, another survivor has set aside a portion of an airport for what he calls the Museum of Civilization.

“There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use, but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads, Tyler’s Nintendo console, a selection of laptops,” Mandel writes.

The author details other items that no longer have a purpose and have found their way to the museum, such as stiletto shoes, coins, newspapers and stamps. Clark, the self-appointed Museum of Civilization director/curator, displays items salvaged from the repurposed airport or acquired from traders who traverse the Great Lakes region.

The desire to connect with a lost past is not unique to the apocalyptic future.

“There’s a strong impulse, even a need to have a shared connection with and understanding of the past,” said Lora Helou, acting director of the MSU Museum.

In the U.S., there are over 17,500 museums, which attract 850 million visitors a year, said Helou.

“That underscores the deep, deep desire and need to preserve our past,” she said. “It is what has made us what we are.”

Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, agreed that there is an inner need to preserve the past.

“For individuals, it might be a mortality thing,” she said. “They hope a piece of them is going to be preserved forever.”

Marvin suggested several items that might be in our generation’s version of a Museum of Civilization.

She thinks people would want to preserve sound by saving vinyl records. The 20th century, Marvin said, is the first complete century in which we’ve had the ability to record and reproduce sound, and it would be important to recognize that.

Viki Spektor-Walker, who runs a private Beatles museum in Dimondale with her husband, couldn’t agree more.

“Vinyl, definitely. LPs are making a comeback,” she said, adding that she would also include the Associated Press newswire story about John Lennon’s death.

Marvin also suggested some items that we take for granted but would have little utility in a post-apocalyptic world: a bra, a hamburger, and a college diploma.

The bra, which Marvin describe as a relatively recent 20th century object, would have little use in a post-apocalyptic world.

“Changes in undergarments completely changed how women dress,” she said, noting that modern women’s clothing values fashion over function and would have little purpose in a post-apocalyptic world.

William Adcock, executive director of the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, would definitely include an internal combustion engine in his Museum of Civilization.

“A museum not only tells the history of the past, it tells the history of the future” he said. “We can look forward and see what’s possible.”

Mandel, while on a tour this year in England, discovered a British bookstore that had created a virtual museum based on the novel’s Museum of Civilization. It encouraged patrons to use the social media hashtag #station11 to suggest items for inclusion.

Portia Vescio, assistant director of MSU’s university archives, said museums and archives play an important role in society.

“We don’t always appreciate or even understand how important things will be when they happen,” she said. “But if we have archives and museums. we can remember them so that in 20 or 50 or 100 years people can still know that what we did mattered.”

The archives recently hosted an event about the 1965-1966 MSU football seasons, when the team won back-to-back national championships. People who attended the event, Vescio said, “can now look back and realize they were a part of history, even if at the time it did not seem like a big deal.”

2015-2016 Great Michigan Read kick-off event

With Emily St. John Mandel and Steve Luxenberg 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8 FREE Michigan Historical Center/Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing