Monday, April 2, 2018

The Grip of Nostalgia in the Digital Age

Why millennials’ connection to the past could herald a bright future for print. ♦ 
For as long as I can remember, books have meant something. I mean the kind you can hold in your hand, the kind you can smell, the kind whose cover you can write your name in. When I looked up at the tall shelves of novels in my childhood home, I knew I was looking at a portal to contentment. Even at the age of four, I knew books were full of knowledge—“reading makes you smarter,” I used to tell anyone who asked why that was the only activity I seemed to enjoy doing every day. As I got older, books became so much more than just stories. They were safe havens, adventures, and, maybe more importantly, life lessons. They gave me the ability to time travel—in them, I was able to envision all kinds of exciting futures for myself. And, I was able to remember my past.
   I can go into my family library, even now, run my hands over the spines, and find a memory, a dream, or a lesson in every book I touch. Where The Sidewalk Ends will always remind me of nights spent curled under blankets with my brother and sister, giggling as my mother read to us. In Dr. Seuss’s Go Dog Go, there is an image of my little sister when she was still little; in Where the Red Fern Grows there is a reinforcement of the strong compassion for animals that has helped define me; in The Bell Jar there is a greater understanding of a mental illness that has impacted my family in ways I have only just begun to understand. Just walking into a room with all those books makes my heart ache with every emotion they’ve ever made me feel.
   Nostalgia, according to Merriam Webster, is "a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition." Or, if you prefer as I do: nostalgia, the state of being homesick. Homesickness is what I feel when the weight of Goodnight Moon presses into my palms.
    I am not alone in this feeling. In fact, sentimentality plays a crucial role in the sale of paper books. This pattern begins when we’re children. According to “Children’s Print Book Sales Buck the Trend” by Jonathan Nowell, in 2015, the sale of children’s print books increased around the world (13 percent growth in the US, 8 percent in the UK, and 10 percent growth in China, even when the overall sale of print books went down). Experts suggest this is not only because parents see print books as crucial to their children’s learning process, but also because these children’s books are not exclusively purchased for children. It was found that 27 percent of juvenile nonfiction books are bought by adults for themselves, often by adults who have no children. These numbers most likely can be attributed to the effect of nostalgia. Adults find themselves buying in to their own feelings of homesickness for their childhood.
  But it’s not only children’s books that tend to be scooped off a shelf because a consumer remembered a positive association with the story. I, for one, am guilty of purchasing a new edition of a book I already own and love—simply because it was rebranded with a new cover, contained an additional chapter, or was being republished with illustrations. For example, the publisher Bloomsbury saw a rise in sales in the Harry Potter series after the release of illustrated versions of the beloved novels. The consumers purchasing these new illustrated books were not first-timers, of course. No, the buyers were long-time lovers of the series, searching for reminders of what the series gave them, looking for new ways to indulge in the many pleasures this story has to offer.
  After researching the role nostalgia plays in the media industry—specifically with books—I discovered several arguments for nostalgia’s role in consumerism as a whole. According to a recent article by James Cowan, editor-in-chief of Canadian Business, a theory has emerged within the marketing community that millennials are especially persuadable when it comes to tapping in to sentimentality of the past. Even businesses agree that students my age—myself included—cannot resist the lure of rediscovering memories.
   When I was in 8th grade, my mom bought me a Nook and herself a Kindle. My high school required every student to have an iPad, where we kept our textbooks and turned in our assignments. Even in college, I spend most of my day starring at a screen. I am guilty of utilizing the information at my fingertips—Netflix, Vine, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Audible, Spotify. All of these allow me to access new content in a matter of seconds, for just a few extra dollars a month.
   But within a few months of getting it, I stopped buying novels on my Nook. There was something missing in the experience—I craved the thrill of spending hours in Barnes & Noble on a treasure hunt for new books, surrounded by the intoxicating smell of paper, the excitement of walking the shelves, sometimes looking for something specific and sometimes just hoping to stumble upon something magical. I wanted the feeling of finding my mom in another aisle, entranced too, and trying to convince her why I needed the twenty books I had hand-picked only to have her tell me I had to choose only five. When I read, I wanted the crinkle of a page turning between my fingers, the guilt associated with flipping to the last page before I should, the solid weight of its spine under my armpit as I carried it to the pool, or the couch, or the hammock in my backyard to enjoy wherever I pleased.
  It is this feeling that will rescue print. Consumers will never surrender nostalgia for convenience. Some, maybe. But wholly giving in to the digital, fully ceasing resistance and handing over the books from which they learned to read, the books that broke their hearts and the books that helped them get over a broken heart? There is no smell like that of an old book, no anticipation like that of a new book in your bag, and no satisfaction like the one that comes with turning the last page of a 1,000-page novel.
   I do not pick up The Very Hungry Caterpillar and admire it for its impeccable prose. I cradle it with such care because of where it takes me—to a house in which I no longer live, in a pajama set I grew out of fifteen years ago. And when the time comes to choose between convenience and a brief, warming cure to my homesickness, you will find me hidden among the stacks of a bookstore, surrounded by a pile of old friends on all sides.
  • About the Author
    Emma Wunderlich is a sophomore student at Miami University, pursuing degrees in both Creative Writing and Zoology. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, her ultimate dream is to work as a veterinarian with rescued big cats while continuing to write and publish her own works. She loves words, coffee, and all things furry.

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