It was one of the first sunny Sundays in a long while. The usual August fog had either already burned off or not shown up. My husband and dog were sunning in the park. But I was in bed, because I had woken up that morning with your typical cold—scratchy throat, clogged nose, itching eyes, and that tender sensation of the glands in the neck, and everywhere else too. The typical cold that I knew I had caught from an old map. A 1962 U.S. road atlas that I bought off eBay and had spent hours bent over, breathing in its old pages. This had happened before. Two years earlier, a hardcover novel from the ’80s that hadn’t been checked out from the library since the ’80s did it, and once in college, I got as sick as I’ve ever been from a 1967 Seventeen Magazine that I had rescued from a barn. In a cat-nappy daze between cups of tea and the kind of vivid dreams I only ever have when I have a fever, I thought that I should really stop collecting so much old stuff. I also knew I’d never be able to keep that promise. But I did understand, probably for the first time, that being so drawn to the old and the nearly forgotten brought with it some amount of risk. It could even be said that it wasn’t good for me.
This interest of mine might be understood as nostalgia. Nowadays we think of nostalgia as that warm, fond remembrance of the past. An affection for memories, maybe, especially the long-term kind. But in its original conception, nostalgia was more like homesickness. I own a 1956 edition of Webster’s—more old, dusty stuff—and in there, it’s defined as a “species of melancholy, resulting from absence from one’s home or country.” In this form, it also used to be treated as a medical disorder. So I am not the first to end up sick in bed with nostalgia. [End Page 181]
It’s not only magazines recovered from barns or neglected books either. I’m the person who watches those networks high on the digital lineup that are only old shows. There’s one that’s a lot of Westerns, one entirely for game shows, and one for those strange, improbable hits of the ’70s and ’80s like the one about the very expensive half-robotic man. The commercials on these channels are always for adjustable beds and bathtubs with a door built into the side. For some reason that I don’t entirely understand, I would rather watch The Match Game or All in the Family or Gunsmoke than most other brand-new shows, even the stuff that many people think is really good. This affection has to do with longing, certainly, but most of the objects of my nostalgia predate my own birth. So the question I have never been able to convincingly answer for myself: if my nostalgia is a kind of longing, what is it that I am longing for?
A lot of writers have taken on the subject of nostalgia, and of them, E. B. White is my favorite. In essay after essay, such as “Good-bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” “Here Is New York,” and “The Ring of Time” (Essays of E.B. White, 1977), White’s narrators worry over the inexorable passage of time. Not so much out of a fear of progress, or only that, but more out of a concern about what’s left behind. The detritus. And he saw it everywhere. Peeking under a tent flap at a Florida circus before the big show began, in “The Ring of Time,” he sees a young woman standing on the back of a horse running a continuous circle. The horse is tethered to an older woman who stands at the center of that titular ring. In one of the essay’s most poignant sentences, he’s trying to explain to himself why he’s taking so much care to try to describe the women, the horse, and the circling, but...