A Life, Secondhand

And now when I go by a secondhand store I imagine all the lives behind every object: it makes my head spin… -Clara Beaudoux

This is how big of a nerd I am: when I first heard about Twitter and its 140-character limit, I imagined that it would basically be a haiku-fest: scads of precision-crafted statements, exquisitely brief turns of phrase. Obviously, social media in all of its incarnations has turned out mostly to be a giant disappointment to me. 

But a while back I serendipitously passed by our graphic novel section and saw a title that caught my eye: The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life. While lots of graphic novels push the genre in new and innovative directions, The Madeleine Project took the form in a direction I hadn’t encountered before. When author Clara Beaudoux moved into her Paris apartment, she inherited the contents its previous tenant, Madeleine, had left behind in the downstairs storage room. For a while, she didn’t touch anything. But eventually she felt ready to begin exploring, and she decided to invite an audience to witness the process on Twitter. (What a perfect pandemic project this would have been!). As she slowly unpacks the contents of the room, Beaudoux unveils a poignant, fragmented portrait of her predecessor’s life through snapshots and tweets. The book itself is Beaudoux’s Twitter feed in print form. 

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the everyday artifacts of past lives. Who was this person? What was life like for them? There’s a bittersweetness to the impossibility of ever truly knowing the answers to these questions, and to the objects that leave behind such tantalizing clues. Turns out, Twitter is the perfect format for a project like this, the brevity leaving space for all that remains unknown. In the case of Madeleine, Beaudoux’s Twitter followers helped her dig into details, identifying people and places, and mysterious items whose use has been lost to time, to add clarity to the picture. And with the help of her neighbors, who knew Madeleine in life, Beaudoux fills in the last of the knowable details of who Madeleine was. 

In so many ways, this book is the perfect pandemic read. If you’ve found you have a hard time settling in for anything very long, you can likely take this one in with just one or two sittings. It demonstrates how social media can create community, but allows you to disconnect from your screens. And it touches on so many topics worth pondering, odds are it will stay with you for a long while after you’ve set it down.

The Madeleine Project

P.S. If you've ever wondered how best to care for the artifacts in your life, check out Jacinta Johnson's presentation on caring for family heirlooms from this summer's How-To Festival. 

-Melissa Fisher Isaacs is the Information Services Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.