Shannon Pufahl is a former music writer and now a novelist who teaches writing at Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in Fiction. Her essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review and The Paris Review, and her novel, On Swift Horses, was published in 2019. (April 2020)
A hundred and fifty years ago, slightly more, a strange notion: the dead could be counted. In the Civil War, in the lush fields of the South, Americans first, as a culture, began to imagine death in numbers. Now, of course, we speak easily in the statistics of absence, of fifty dead in a mass shooting, of fourteen hundred missing in an earthquake, as if this has always been done. We live in a world of measurement, the mind ordered around quantities that tell us how to feel about loss and how to gauge the relative tragedy of an event. In this pandemic, we are bound by a common experience in new, unprecedented, global numbers.