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What Makes Us Nostalgic?

I came across an interesting idea reading Ready Player One — and I want to discuss this in the post and comments without giving any spoilers.  I’m not done with the book, and I know a lot of people haven’t read it yet at all.

The premise is that a programmer, James Halliday, created a virtual reality game that has thousands of worlds.  One of these worlds is an exact replica of his hometown, Middletown, Ohio, on a random autumn day in 1986.  There are non-player characters walking around the town, riding their bikes, mowing their lawns.

There is also a recreation of the programmer’s childhood home, perfectly replicated down to the shag carpeting.  The narrator comments on this preservation because for all intents and purposes, the programmer had a shitty childhood.  He states,

Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it.  I knew that if and when I finally escaped from the stacks, I’d never look back.  And I definitely wouldn’t create a detailed simulation of the place.

It’s an excellent question: why are we nostalgic for some things and not others?  I have no desire to ever see a scrunchie or banana clip again, despite loving to wear them when I was little.  But I would do anything to get my old gummy bracelets back.  I spent hours upon hours playing tag, and while I have fond memories of the game, I have no desire to play all-neighbourhood tag ever again.  Yet I incessantly play old Atari games.

And then you have the situation in the book: if a person has no fond memories of a space, why would they want to create a simulation of it?  Is it worth someone outside of an experience visiting a space to try to understand it?  Of course.  But we’re talking about building an exact replica of something you lived through and hated so you could revisit it.  What would be the benefit of that?

Unless, I guess, he didn’t really hate his childhood.

I would love a replica of my childhood home, but I also have happy memories of childhood.  And barring a replica of it, I would at least like some of my old toys and books back.

What are you nostalgic for?  And what sort of things evoke nostalgia in your life?  Is there rhyme and reason to what triggers you to miss something?


1 Parul { 10.07.15 at 7:44 am }

That’s an interesting question and some food for thought. I think nostalgia is tied to memory and if they are the sorts that people bask in it. I am nostalgic about a lot of things but mostly not objects. I think of the time I spent with my grandparents or time with friends or with VT when we had just seeing each other. 🙂

2 Heather { 10.07.15 at 7:57 am }

I am nostalgic for people and where we were. For example, my grandparents used to have these amazing Christmas Eve parties at her house. I loved them. Everyone was there, family and her friends. I just remember feeling warm and loved at those parties. I would love to go back to that moment in time.
I’m also nostalgic for my childhood home but because of the feeling. The lazy feeling on a Saturday morning as a kid when I could play Nintendo all day.
I’m nostalgic over things for a minute, but the nostalgia for feelings and places lasts.

3 Baby Blue Sunday { 10.07.15 at 9:13 am }

I LOVE that book! Enjoy it, it’s a book I wish I could read again without knowing the outcome.
To answer your question, I think I am nostalgic for all the things people usually are. The other day, I got a wiff of something that smelled like my grandparents house, and I so badly wanted to see them again, in their house. I think I am most nostalgic for the last year of highschool. Some of it was hard, but it was nice when everything I knew and loved was in one geographic area.

4 Working mom of 2 { 10.07.15 at 9:53 am }

I tend to get nostalgic for things I didn’t even like at the time. I grew up in the 80s and mostly hated 80s music–I had discovered the Beatles and listened to 60s music whenever possible. At the same time, mtv was new (and all music), there was no internet, so I watched a lot that and listened to top 40 radio too since there weren’t a lot of options. Now when I hear an 80s song I often turn it up (knowing all the words despite my disdain at the time) and I’ll often be flooded with nostalgia…of course high school and college happened in the 80s so often a song will stir up memories of those periods.

5 deathstar { 10.07.15 at 12:42 pm }

I get nostalgic for 80s music, the pickup baseball games I used to play as a kid (I had a baseball glove from K-mart that I loved), dancing in gay bars and being totally wasted, and candy rockets. All of those things make me feel young, carefree and full of life.

6 Jill A. { 10.07.15 at 12:54 pm }

I find the past easy to live in because it contains no fear or anxiety. Life was either good or I know I solved and dealt with the tragedy and heartache.

I get nostalgic for the things that invoke the good memories. With the internet, I can go back and relive the 1968 Sears Wish Book (the Christmas catalog). I can still pick out and remember the toys I wanted. The fashions bring back that time and I can see my Mom again. Smell the new baby doll smell. Remember how good it felt, to be safe and loved and happy.

7 Cristy { 10.07.15 at 1:05 pm }

I swear Mel, you’re picking my brain.

My childhood was less than ideal. Yet I still dream of visiting the small town I grew up in during my early childhood. Including the house. It’s not that I want to go back to relive all of it, but I remember some good parts and there are parts I want that could-have-been. In a way, I wish I could rewrite some of that history, which is what I would guess Halliday is doing. Capturing what we longed to have, replacing the unpleasant.

8 Valery Valentina { 10.07.15 at 3:33 pm }

I suppose that by creating a simulation you are in control of the situation? You could walk through that house and feel safe at the same time? So that the house or feelings from back than do loose control over you?

9 suzannacatherine { 10.07.15 at 4:37 pm }

I’d go back to my Grandparents house. There was always love and laughter, music played by my grandpa, my dad and my uncles. There was always good food made from scratch everyday – not just on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My favourite cousin lived there and we were like two peas in a pod. (Still are.) The family elders were all still alive, Eisenhower was President, and all was right with my world.

As an adult I know that there were undercurrents of other things going on in the family and the world but in 1957 and 58, it seemed perfect to me!

10 Mali { 10.07.15 at 11:45 pm }

I really like Valery and Jill’s thoughts on this.

I’m nostalgic for the long lazy summers of childhood, and for the crisp, cool winters, for my love of school and enthusiasm for my future, for simple times with my father on the farm. I’m also nostalgic for my year in Thailand as an exchange student, even though it was one of the hardest years of my life. I guess that’s because everything I was experiencing was new and I remember how I delighted in that, that I know I survived, and I know what that year did to change my life.

11 Chris { 10.08.15 at 5:49 am }

My mom. It will be 9 years next week and I am so nostalgic for all the days I was able to see her , and our AT LEAST daily phone calls. As a child I moved around a lot and I also am an abuse survivor so there aren’t a lot of things there I’m nostalgic for- but having moved back to where I grandparents lived (and they were always a constant in my life) I feel the nostalgia for places we went or things they’d say, there’s one road that my grandfather always commented on all the red lights- I think of him every time I see the name of that road…..

12 Rachel { 10.08.15 at 2:25 pm }

I am so nostalgic towards 90s movies – and yet I don’t particularly remember enjoying the 90s at all. It’s the strangest thing and yet I can’t help myself from watching and rewatching 90s shows and movies. And seriously, the 90s was my early childhood and it stunk! Weird…now excuse me while I go watch Father of the Bride for the 3654th time.

13 Charlotte { 10.08.15 at 5:54 pm }

I don’t think I get as nostalgic for things like toys and games, as it is fairly easy to find those things on eBay or the like if one was so inclined.
Music makes me nostalgic for a simpler time, and brings back such a wistful feeling and makes me really happy, especially when something unexpected comes on the radio.
Sometimes I can sit and certain memories will just flood me, seemingly out of the blue although I am sure there is a trigger whether I realize it or not. Sometimes I evoke certain memories just so I won’t ever forget, like my grandmother singing to me, or conversations with my dad…I never want to forget the sound of their voices. It makes me miss them.

14 Lori Lavender Luz { 10.08.15 at 8:49 pm }

I was kind of thinking about this just today. A series of songs were on the radio that reminded me of high school, and I was driving around the same area I used to frequent while in high school. Even though I don’t have particularly fond memories of high school, the songs made me feel all warm and happy inside. Like it went back to a time when things seemed so full of promise, so sepia, so not-heavy (even though none of that felt like it at the time).

The mind is weird when it comes to time.

15 loribeth { 10.13.15 at 8:13 pm }

Like many of the commenters above, I am nostalgic for people & places that no longer exist — for my grandparents & their homes, for the extended family members that I used to see, if not regularly, then more often than I do today. One of my cousins posted a photo on Facebook this week, of a country road that he said reminded him of the gravel road leading to our grandparents’ farm. I had the exact same thought when I saw it. SIL was apologizing at Thanksgiving this past weekend for how crowded the kitchen was (16 people for dinner) — I told her that was nothing; my paternal grandparents regularly used to cram in all the aunts, uncles & cousins (they had 9 children & more than 30 grandchildren) to celebrate Christmas or Grandpa’s birthday, in a tiny two-bedroom house I’m guessing was no more than about 1000 square feet. (And this would be winter, in Manitoba…!! = only so long you could go to play outside…!)

I am nostalgic for a time when kids were free to roam & play outside without adults constantly hovering around, when they learned to entertain themselves without the benefit of iPhones or video games.

Music & looking through old pictures will put me in a nostalgic mood, as will media reports that send me into rants about “when *I* was a kid/younger…” (lol). 😉 The smell of coffee brewing is also a trigger — takes me instantly back to my grandmother’s house.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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