On Nostalgia

By Bruce Cinnamon

By David Berry Coach House Books 2020/$19.95/160 pp.

What is nostalgia? Is it a growing phenomenon, an increasing trend in our accelerating world? Or has it always been with us, an essential part of the human condition? These are some of the questions that Edmonton author David Berry unpacks in his debut book. A slim volume, On Nostalgia nonetheless manages to delve deeply into its central topic from multiple angles. Berry structures the book as six distinct meditations on nostalgia. He walks us through the etymology of the word (first used as a diagnosis for the pathological homesickness of 17th century Swiss mercenaries), and he explores nostalgia in art, in politics and as a lynchpin of consumerism, a devastating tool in the advertiser’s arsenal. He dissects anti-nostalgia and how it uses many of the same tropes and tricks of the phenomenon it claims to abhor. And he ponders the future of nostalgia in a world defined by ephemeral online experiences and ever more mediated memory.

The result is a book that gives you a little taste of all these big flavours, serving just the right portions to provide you with a substantial understanding of the subject but never lingering too long on any one point. Within each section, Berry zests up the text by peppering his prose with a diverse set of examples. He jumps from ubiquitous cultural touchpoints—Star Wars, Make America Great Again, The Office—to more obscure references such as fine-china mogul Josiah Wedgwood creating the methods of modern advertising to build a pottery empire, or an extended discussion of Italian Futurism’s anti-nostalgia crusade. Berry writes with a dry and self-deprecating humour, which helps gel these disparate elements into a coherent whole.

Due to its brevity and its accessible storytelling style, Berry’s book is reminiscent—and I say this fully as a compliment—of a Wikipedia article, delivering the most necessary information in an unpretentious and conversational tone while pointing towards more academic sources for those who wish to dig deeper. Berry name-checks theorists and explains their key concepts, but never gets lost in the weeds of theory or terminology. As a result, the book acts as much as a meditation guide and an aid to reflection as it does an explainer.

On Nostalgia has arrived at a time when its subject feels more relevant than ever, as all of us experience nostalgia for a pre-pandemic world. But the ideas in this book will resonate beyond this time, and the author articulates them in novel and memorable ways. Berry is endlessly quotable, with an aphorist’s skill of crystallizing complex ideas into pithy sentences. “All things pass,” he writes, in one of his simplest distillations of nostalgia, “and we will always wish we could have them back.” 

Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen (NeWest).

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