Scrapbooks: An American History

By JESSICA HELFAND

In Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica Helfand offers several frameworks through which to interpret the hundreds of scrapbook pages included in her lavishly illustrated book. She cites their value as artifacts of social history; she suggests that they serve the same expressive function as the dream state as theorized by Freud. Linking them to today?s mash-up aesthetic, she calls scrapbooks ?the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.? True enough. But the book?s real pleasure — nostalgic, voyeuristic — comes from poring over the beautiful reproductions throughout its pages. Some of the scrapbookers are public figures, and knowing that poet Anne Sexton will commit suicide at 45 makes it all the more heartbreaking to see the happy mementos (snapshot, motel key) of her elopement at age 19 that she carefully pasted into a book. The fragments from the lives of ordinary men and women are equally riveting, from the young music student who meticulously preserved her ticket stubs and candy wrappers in the 1920s to the medals and dogtags of a World War II G.I. It is not surprising when Helfand herself, despite her keenly analytical perspective, confesses that “to spend any time at all with these scrapbooks is to fall a little bit in love with the people who created them.”

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