Alan Jacobs writes on “the problem of modern identity” by telling the story of Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. In short:
“… Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.
In a flat world, place matters more than ever. I really believe this, and I think explains why we still invest so much meaning in living where we live, whether it’s New York, San Francisco, or somewhere in the great unwashed middle.
In many ways I think we’re living through the triumph of libertarianism. We can mostly move to wherever we want and we can create the story about our lives we want to tell. We can live as we’d like, as free from any meaningful judgment from the local pastor—who doesn’t really know us—as we can from our neighbors, with whom we have equally vague relationships.
We’re proud of living in New York, but we know no New Yorkers, so to speak. We don’t become New Yorkers by living there; New Yorkers are people from New York. If we moved there, at what point are we from there?
I think one way to answer that is that we’re from a place when we become truly familiar with it; intimate in our knowledge of its history, its strange and defining characteristics, its prominent families and the disputes that have shaped the place, and the hopes with which the soil of a place has been fused with the glow of meaning that attracted us to it in the first place.