It’s not often I hear an author’s voice in my head while reading a book, but with On Nostalgia, I heard what I imagined to be David Berry’s roving documentary tones, bright and curious, not unlike that other David – Attenborough – guiding us through the planet Earth of memory and our place in it.
Berry’s book is a compact collection of essays investigating the origins and uses of nostalgia. Introducing his central concept, Berry says, “But surely the desire to go back has been and will be with us for as long as we go forward – surely there’s a reason we made it possible to play the same song again.” In this way, Berry hooks us with a notion that incites our interest, without asking a question directly. His sentences are consistently playful and persuasive, all while conveying deep insights: “Our lives are a relentless push forward, and even if the path ahead is bright and brilliant, it will be littered with loss.”
The essays in On Nostalgia are striking for their ability to circle around the subject, collecting the material in its orbit, and returning with a neat constellation of relations. Each chapter covers vast swaths of history without bogging down the pace. In the first chapter, Berry tells us about the Swiss mercenaries who first expressed homesickness: a condition we now think of as nostalgia. A couple of pages later, Berry cites Mad Men’s Don Draper, who claims “nostalgia is Greek for ‘the pain from an old wound.’” Just when we think we are being taken on a tangent, Berry’s ideas return to the core themes of home, consumerism, and memory.
In the third chapter, Berry unpacks popular culture, in particular to demonstrate how the Star Wars franchise is “consistently working in nostalgic modes – or in any case, the first film, which was retroactively named A New Hope when they decided to start making sequels, was.” His reading of Star Wars through the lens of nostalgia offers a refreshing perspective on the series, one that could pair well in writing and film classes, which often focus on the structure and monomyth template of character arcs.
On Nostalgia is a perceptive and worldly read, executed with a striking balance of inventory and storytelling. Berry’s method is embodied in his opinion of art: “As much as we like to praise artists for originality and creativity, there is not one of them who isn’t simply a sum of their influences. Collecting, assessing, and recombining the things that came before to create something that feels fresh and relevant and unique to this time is more or less all there is to art, and the degree to which we can see the stitches is more often dependent on our own experience (or age …) than anything the artist is doing.”
Berry guides us toward a deeper knowledge of ourselves and the ways we stitch our past into our present and future, not only to remember what we once were but to reinvent ourselves – to persist and exist.