Nostalgia (noun) 1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.
--The American Heritage Dictionary
Rest in peace Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). Born 1768, died 2012. Cause of death? The digital age. That’s the essence of obituaries which ran last week for a “good old days” old technology, the printed encyclopedia, which once represented the penultimate way to organize knowledge. Until its demise the EB was the oldest continually published print edition encyclopedia in the world. Its volumes graced the bookshelves of scholars and school kids, libraries and lyceums, for 244 years.
Growing up, my family’s encyclopedia was “The World Book”, still published, all twenty two volumes, 14,000-plus pages, for $1,077. I have sweet memories of those encyclopedias in my childhood home. My Dad decided to purchase the multi-volume set when he was out of work, a great sacrifice. I recall my Mom wasn’t that happy he’d made such a big purchase when we really couldn’t afford it. But for my father, the encyclopedia represented a precious gift to his kids, human knowledge, all neatly summarized and organized in just one set of books. So if one of us needed to write a school report on volcanoes or human hearing or wondered what the tiniest country in the world was or wanted to lose ourselves on a rainy afternoon in Volume “W” (warthogs, weather, West Virginia), the book was there, waiting to be cracked open and explored.
This is the part in the column where I’m supposed to wax even more nostalgically about the death of the EB, write poetically about the feel of the paper, the brightness of the color photos. Launch into a screed about “the good old days”. How tragic it is the EB died. As a coda I’d then decry the coldness of the Internet and a screen, how a Kindle Fire or I-Pad can’t ever compare to the heft of a World Book, its physical truth. Cue the sad music. “Those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end….”
But that’s the mistake of nostalgia, our human predilection for remembering the past and worshipping it as better, sacred, “golden days” to be mourned, pined for, especially when compared to the supposed “bad days” of now. Nostalgia in itself is not always bad. By writing about my Dad I re-visit him through the tender gift of human memory even though he is no longer alive. I step into my past and am comforted by this journey. Good nostalgia.
Yet these days I hear much bad nostalgia, societal lamenting about what we’ve lost or how we got lost and how we must return to the past. Presidential candidates speak about returning America to “what it was”, to “its greatness” as if to turn the nation back is as easy as making a syrupy speech. I do sympathize with the nostalgic among us. We live in an epoch of radical cultural and technological change which can feel as if we are being whipsawed much too fast into the future. Guttenberg’s printed word is slowly dying, no denying that. Old media like this newspaper fade away. America’s place in the world shifts, from lone superpower to who knows what? Church as the central repository of God and faith recedes. Traditional family morphs. What is not changing these days? Not much.
Yet bad nostalgia commits one unavoidable sin. The past remembered is really not true, not objectively. It’s a past we selectively remember, sometimes narrowly, often sugar coated, certainly romantic. The bad stuff inevitably gets edited out. Author John Steinbeck wrote, “Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change....”
Bad nostalgia doesn’t allow the room to remember times of great change when everything shifted for the better. Yesterday polio. Today a vaccine. Yesterday intolerance of “the other” for their religion, gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. Today: a more civil nation. Today cancer. Tomorrow—perhaps a medical breakthrough. But for this to happen we can’t get stuck in a past which never really existed, nor fear a future yet to be born.
Life is finally change. We can sweetly remember the past. We can be grateful for it. We can learn from it but finally we can never, ever go back.
So farewell Encyclopedia Britannica. You did a good job but you had to die to make way for the awesome information wave which is transforming our world in ways we could never have dreamed.
As a person of faith I finally rely on the advice of the Psalmist: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Yes those were the days. Yes these are the days. But imagine what is yet to come. Bring it on.