What To Read: Brooks Eisenbise is perusing your yearbook

This week, we interviewed Brooks Eisenbise, who writes H.A.G.S., a publication that examines yearbooks and what they say about history, culture, and adolescent identity.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

H.A.G.S. explores yearbooks and yearbook signatures to learn more about identity, American culture, and adolescence through the ages. 

What drew you to write about yearbooks? 

It probably started with my mother’s high school yearbooks – I would read all of the signatures and try to imagine the kind of teenage girl she used to be and the kind of teenager I would become. A few years ago, I found a yearbook in an antique store that reignited my interest through its deeply intimate and emotional inscriptions. I was in college at the time, and it led me down a rabbit hole of studying performative identity in adolescence: who we feel we need to be, and who we truly are when no one else is watching. Since I graduated, my interest hasn’t dwindled, and I keep finding remarkable yearbooks whose stories are worth sharing.

Why did you name your publication "H.A.G.S."?

“H.A.G.S.,” or “Have a Great Summer,” was a pretty common yearbook inscription when I was going through school. It’s one of those bare-bones signatures; if you didn’t know someone very well but you still wanted to sign their yearbook, that’s what you would write. I feel like the relationship I have with the yearbooks I explore is similarly distant: I know of their owners through peer interaction – signatures – but I’ll never truly know them.

For your research, you’ve dug into family yearbooks, yearbooks from antique shops, pre- and post-internet yearbooks …  What makes a yearbook interesting to you?

I look to explore what the inscriptions reveal about the yearbook’s owner, and how much I can piece together from signatures alone. It creates this funhouse-mirror version of them, magnifying their best, most socially acceptable traits. In many ways, the books I find in thrift shops and antique stores are easier to decode, because I’m using one artifact to explore one person at one moment in time. I’ve interviewed several family members while flipping through their yearbooks, and I’ve found that it’s more difficult to create short, buttoned-up narratives from those conversations. Stories are simple, but real people are messy and complex.

How have yearbooks changed as the world has gone digital? What’s stayed the same?

From a design standpoint, they’re a lot less interesting. Before the 1980s, yearbook staff would create the layouts by hand, sometimes featuring student illustrations and writing. In the age of digital yearbooks and InDesign templates, everything looks the same. The designs are flashier, but they often come with canned themes, and students largely don’t get to create a story about their specific high school. That’s one of the reasons I’m most drawn to the older yearbook – it feels like a completed “piece” that’s unique to that school at that particular moment in time. 

Still, the basic structure is the same: rows of smiling faces, photos of sports and choir and prom. And people are still signing each others’ yearbooks!

What’s been the most surprising insight so far as you’ve read and researched yearbooks?

I did a deep dive into some yearbook ephemera from the 1970s, and I ended up learning a lot about the education shift during the Vietnam War. The number of students in higher education spiked during this time – presumably from young adults who wanted to avoid the draft – and it created this vibrant, outspoken radical subculture on college campuses.

I had only learned bits and pieces in my high school history classes, so interacting with and dissecting a college yearbook that actually quotes the musical Hair was really remarkable. A yearbook, which captures just a small snapshot in time, taught me more about what young people were thinking and feeling during the Vietnam War than any history textbook ever could.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend? 

I recently discovered Mason Currey's Subtle Maneuvers, and it's been really valuable to me as a creative. His latest advice column is full of great insights. And I know What To Read has already shared his work, but Isaac Fitzgerald's Walk It Off is what drew me to Substack in the first place, and I enjoy every new post. 

Subscribe to Brooks’s newsletter, H.A.G.S., visit her website, or find her on Instagram.