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?