Book Review: David Berry’s ‘On Nostalgia’ Examines the Urge to Look Back

Book Review: David Berry’s ‘On Nostalgia’ Examines the Urge to Look Back

If you’re going to publish a book-length essay about nostalgia, your timing couldn’t be much more on the nose than our present moment — when we’re all feeling acute nostalgia for a time before we were locked down trying to escape a rampaging pandemic exacerbated by the inept administration of a president elected on the basis of Cold War nostalgia. Congratulations, America: we’re living in dread again.

Cultural critic David Berry’s debut book is called On Nostalgia, a boldly boring title for a publication in a series that also includes the likes of Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality and The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class, and the Pursuit of Leisure. Berry seemingly doesn’t want to tie himself down to any particular argument or idea about nostalgia, though, preferring to turn the concept around and examine it from various angles.

On Nostalgia is not exactly a page-turner, though Berry succeeds at complicating our ideas of what, precisely, nostalgia is and why it’s so persistently compelling. By way of historical background, the author points out that in its original 17th century formulation, “nostalgia” was a medical diagnosis for the condition of debilitating homesickness. As mobility has increased and media have proliferated, Berry observes, we’ve come to associate the term with a temporal, rather than spatial, longing.

Berry usefully separates various forms of nostalgia. Personal nostalgia, a wistful memory of our own past experiences, intertwines with a broader cultural nostalgia: when I thumb through photos of ’80s action figures on Tumblr, I’m thinking back to my own individual childhood playing with those toys while also participating in widely shared memories of cracking Sears Wishbooks and visiting K•B Toys.

Then there’s the stranger phenomenon of nostalgia for times we didn’t even live through. Berry notes the ’80s vogue for Victorian furnishings, and points out that Ready Player One, one of the signature statements of nostalgia for that decade, is set so far in the future that the Reagan era might as well be Victorian to the story’s young characters. Is it plausible that kids in future decades will be as enraptured by the Back to the Future DeLorean as I was? Weirdly, yes.

In a chapter on the political uses of nostalgia, Berry says unexpectedly little about our current moment — despite the fact that the Canadian author’s own country is currently led by the scion of a longtime former leader, nostalgia for whom surely played a role in his son’s election. Instead, he uses Italy as an illustration of the way that modern nations are fundamentally premised on nostalgia, which is inherently selective in its view of the past.

He points out that the Etruscans, residents of “a jumped-up city-state” in ancient times, have been elevated beyond all reason in historical memory. “Their empire, it was theorized, rather conveniently stretched across the Italian peninsula, with nearly identical borders to modern-day Italy.” Why, by extension, do Republican voters see fossil fuels as essential to making America great again? Because, conveniently, their extraction rather conveniently created steady employment in decades past for residents of geographical swaths that our Constitution accords outsize power at the polls.

If it’s true that nostalgia as we know it is highly facilitated by media enabling (even requiring) the instant recollection of yesteryear, what will become of nostalgia as social media turn our brains into percolating stews of the perpetual now? Ironically, Berry suggests, the very media that currently thrive on nostalgia might reduce its allure by demonstrating, constantly and rapidly, the impossibility of turning the clock back.

Given the comforts and certitudes that nostalgia can provide, will we miss it when it’s gone? That’s a chance we may have to take, as a clear-eyed view of the future becomes more urgent than ever.

Jay Gabler