On Nostalgia. Coach House Books
Although the mention of nostalgia might evoke thoughts of childhood memories and TV show reruns, David Berry’s On Nostalgia makes it clear that the phenomenon runs far deeper than a mere personal desire to return to the past. His debut book considers the broader and more collective implications of nostalgia, exploring not just how and where it operates in today’s society, but most importantly why. He deals with themes of loss, death, political unrest, and the inexorable passage of time, examining the role that nostalgia plays throughout life to help build identity, find community, and make meaning in a world that often seems devoid of it.
Berry’s exploration of nostalgia starts with an explanation of the term’s history and origins. It was coined in the seventeenth century from the Greek words nostos (“home” or “homecoming”) and algos (“pain”), literally meaning “pain associated with home” or “homesickness.” Interestingly, it was originally a medical diagnosis for soldiers returning home from war (exhibiting symptoms of what might now be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder). Over time, however, nostalgia has come to be defined more broadly as a yearning for a time or place in the past that simultaneously acknowledges the impossibility of a return. Throughout the course of his book, Berry offers over twenty different definitions of nostalgia, including “a form of reconciliation,” “a tool of identity” in politics, “the selfie of subject matter,” and “the dream that we can give death a little less bite.” As the variety of definitions indicates, the uses and applications of nostalgia are clearly far-reaching. Far from being an individual phenomenon, nostalgia is constantly spilling over into pop culture, social media, and even politics.
After explaining the history and origins of the term, Berry moves on to address its critics, its modern manifestations in art, the political realm, consumer culture, and nostalgia’s potential role in the future. Taking on “anti-nostalgia” in the second chapter feels like a questionable choice, as it seems to set Berry’s argument back before it even gets underway. Once the anti-nostalgic arguments of the Panglossians and Futurists have been acknowledged, however, the rest of the book is well structured and organized. Berry draws his material from a number of fields, engaging with the work of Fred Davis, Svetlana Boym, Clay Routledge, Thorstein Veblen, Barbara Stern, Vance Packard, and Johannes Hofer (the Swiss student who introduced the term nostalgia in 1688), amongst others. He also makes use of many short case studies to illustrate the ubiquity of nostalgia in society: Star Wars, Back to the Future, Coca-Cola, Ready Player One, The Office, Mad Men, and of course the Odyssey. Some of these studies can feel drawn out at times; the final chapter on the future of nostalgia falls a bit flat compared to the rest of the book, lapsing into an extended discussion of Internet archives and social media simulators that seems to this reviewer slightly beside the point. Other anecdotes and examples could benefit from further elaboration. Berry often mentions his love of his grandma’s fresh-baked cookies but is conspicuously vague as to why the song “Heaven” by David Byrne holds such nostalgic joy for him. For the majority of the book, however, Berry maintains a good balance between the depth and breadth of information he delivers.
The book’s fourth chapter, on political nostalgia, is particularly resonant in today’s climate. Berry discusses nostalgia’s role in the nation-building projects of the eighteenth century onwards, the rise of fascism in Italy with Mussolini, and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (especially evident in the slogan “Make America Great Again”). He draws some troubling parallels between past and present, especially regarding nostalgia’s ability to unify populations by facilitating a simultaneous remembering and forgetting of history, allowing for the cultivation of a collective past and identity that people can rally around. In the fifth chapter, Berry asserts that commodified nostalgia functions in a similar way, enabling people to form coherent identities based on the products or media they consume. It is, essentially, the means by which the past is made marketable to people who are searching for some sort of meaning and anchoring in life, who want to believe they can assuage their nostalgia and their consumerist desires in one go. People who use nostalgia as a tool for financial or political gain have often been criticized for doing so, but Berry emphasizes that even public criticism does not have much of an effect on nostalgia’s ability to influence the masses. His analysis of nostalgia is, therefore, also a warning and a critique of the ways in which nostalgia is deployed to capitalize on people’s desires for belonging and stability in a constantly changing world.
Although this book does not necessarily offer many new contributions to the field, it is a strong synthesis of existing scientific and social understandings of nostalgia interspersed with apt anecdotes and examples. The breadth and number of these examples means that certain aspects of Berry’s discussion will resonate with certain readers better than others. It also means, however, that this is a book where there is truly something for everyone who is old enough to have experienced feelings of nostalgia. While nostalgia insists that newer is not always better, in the case of this book the recency of Berry’s references—particularly in the political and technological spheres—makes for a relevant read that offers critical insight on many aspects of contemporary society.
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