Saturday, April 10, 2010

Books as Time Machines for Nostalgia

Scott D. Parker

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can trigger the most powerful of memories by the merest whiff of a familiar smell, a snippet of text, a bar or two of a song, or the brief glimpse of an old object. You can’t prepare for nostalgia, nor can you prevent it’s influence. All you can do is make a choice: ignore the feeling and stay in the present or remember the event with fondness or displeasure and analyze how it changed you.

Usually, I go with the former. The other week, I reviewed a thirty-year-old KISS record, one I bought as a youth. I’d been in a KISS mood before that review and I’m still in one. As I jam to their songs on my commute, I remember my childhood, the sepia-tinged visions of my life in the 1970s. I freely wallow in nostalgia and recognize its ephemeral nature. Before I know it, I’ll be listening to something other than KISS and, before long, the feeling this music gives me will pass.

My son surprised me yesterday by asking me to go to the garage and pull down some of the toys he enjoyed when he was younger. I’m one of those dads who allows the child to determine when it’s time to retire certain toys. Last fall, we had a garage sale and my boy decided it was time to give up one of his toys that, frankly, I wasn’t ready to part with yet. It was his decision so it’s gone. Conversely, I recognize how nostalgia can wash over him, too. As I got those toys, all I did was ask him triggered the memory and made him decide to play with them again. He said he saw a picture and these toys were in the photo.

In the garage, I have a few boxes of old books I owed thirty to thirty five years ago. Mostly they are Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, paperback collections of Marvel comics, stuff like that. On top of one of the boxes sits an old paperback. It’s thirty-three years old. It’s held together by two rubber bands, one vertical, one horizontal. The spine is shorn right down the middle. You see, there were photos in the center of this book and I gazed on them for hours, the spine finally succumbing. The cover is dog-eared and there’s a distinctive fold on the front cover where I’d crease the thicker paper of the cover while I read.

The book in question: the novelization of “Star Wars.” It’s a time machine. I look at it and I’m nine again. I remember with startling clarity where I was when I read it. I read it more than once so those sunny summer days tend to blend together. I remember the crinkle of the photo pages and how they felt different than the text pages. I remember showing the photos to friends and debating not only the fictional aspect of Luke Skywalker’s universe but how the filmmakers crafted the shot.

Of all the promise of e-reading, I’ll admit that some of the nostalgia of reading a story or book will be lost. (Yes, here’s where I extol the virtues of the physical artifact that is a book.) I have the ebook version of the Star Wars novelization. When I open the file on my Palm Pilot, I don’t get the waves of nostalgia you might expect. Those who heard me write about the wonders of e-reading these past few weeks might snarkingly point out that the text is the same so what’s the big deal. They’d be right. But there is something missing.

Oddly, audiobooks, for me, are exempt from this discussion. Even though I only own the e-file, I can get nostalgia in the unlikeliest of places. As I mow the lawn, I can remember books I was listening to at certain places in the yard. It’s like walking through time when I mow each week.

Interestingly, the device become the thing from which nostalgia comes. I’ve had my Palm Pilot for seven years now and I’ve used it as a reading device for about six-and-a-half years. I remember the big deal when, for a vacation, I only took the Palm. It was liberating. Now, looking at the Palm, I remember that vacation and the ones subsequent. Nostalgia now comes from the device. Thing is, I don’t remember just books with the Palm. I remember games played and books listened to. Weird.

I picked up the iPad at the Apple store this week. First thing I did was go to the iBook app and play around with it. The thing’s dang cool, I’ll admit. I can easily see myself with one, reading until all hours of the night just like I do with books. While the reading experience will change and the added value of e-reading increases, nostalgia will likely be harder to come by with digital reading. As space-aged as e-readers are, they lose their time capsule quality to some degree. That’s something books will always have over e-reading.

My bookshelves are filled with time machines. I look at a book and I’m sent to that time and place where I read it. There is, however, the ultimate time machine for me. It’s a novel I was reading during the days just prior to and after my son’s birth. His birth announcement is a funny one with him propped up on my lap, my glasses over his face, and him “reading” that particular novel.

I never finished that book. My bookmark is still in place, where I put it one night. Perhaps I needed to feed my son, perhaps I merely fell asleep on the couch. I don’t know. But I’ll never finish that novel. To do so would strip away the precious memory that book has for me. Time, in the form of that book, has stopped for me. As my son grows and leaves home, I’ll treasure that book like few other things.

That’s what’s missing from digital reading. And, yet, I move to it more and more, knowing full well I’m leaving behind a certain part of reading. Some days, I wonder why.


Paul D Brazill said...

It's the smell of books that give me my Proustean moments. Certain second hand book shops drag me back to a Robin Hood book that I read when I was about 7....good post, Scott. I'm sniffy about ebooks & the like but there's no going back, it seems.

Dana King said...

That's a great story about the novel you'll never finish reading.

I'm lucky. I'm old enough that I can probably get away with holding out reading only electronically. I expect I'll get a reader at some point as some books I want may only be available that way, but I like books. I like the feel and faint smell they give my office, and I like the senses that rush past as I see the titles on the spines, even if I don't pick the book up.

Chris said...

This is a great post, Scott. I like finding old books I used to have at the used bookstore. When they are battered and well-read, they almost feel like they are the very same one I used to have.

Mike Dennis said...

Scott, I read your last post which was in the same ballpark as this one, the one where you analogized a book to a concert t-shirt. I was inspired to post a blog on my own website which encompassed parts of that post and oddly, parts of this one, which you hadn't written yet. I reference you and your blog in it.

Anyway, if you're interested, it's the second post from the top, titled, "Oh If Only They'd Had Computers In 13th Century England".

pattinase (abbott) said...

My son got a Kindle for his 40th birthday yesterday. I could see the interest his wife (the purchaser) had in it. But he held the biography of Willie Mays we bought him with a lot more interest. Some of your generation will probably remain old souls.