The Lure of Nostalgia and Physicality

An article by Alex Williams in the New York Times discussed the surge in sales and interest in wrist watches after a decade of significant decline.  Folks in their 20s and 30s who abandoned watches when they adopted cellphones (or who never adopted watches at all) are returning to them as part of a fashion trend.  What’s hot right now: big watches, vintage Rolexes, and clear watches that let you see the gears moving.

The section of the article that made me think of the connection to snail mail was:

For a generation raised on Game Boys, however, the appeal seems to go a little deeper than just a desire for another fashion accessory. In a world surrounded by ever-glowing LCD screens, there’s an analog chic to wearing a mechanical instrument.

“A cool machine that is all moving parts has got to be intrinsically interesting to someone born into this generation, because there’s just nothing like that in their life,” said Mitch Greenblatt…

Just as sitting down with the tactile accoutrements of letter writing–a nice pen and luxurious paper–provides me with a much needed respite from the computer I sit in front of all day, the watch can provide a nostalgic “connected” feeling for its wearer.

As we live in an increasingly digital world, I think more people will continue, or begin,  to yearn for and connect with the tangible, high-quality artifacts from days past or the rewarding, comforting activities of our grandparents’ generation. Knitting, letter press, canning food, gardening, and using refurbished typewriters have all experienced a return to vogue status in recent years.

What’s funny to me is that people don’t “go back to” five and a quarter inch floppy disks or fire up that old 1984 IBM personal computer in the same ways as people have been reviving the more tactile arts of woodworking or blacksmithing.  Is it because computers are not built to last? They quickly become obsolete and seem to have no intrinsic value.  When electronics break, most of us don’t have the ability to tinker around with them to fix them and it’s cheaper to buy anew than to repair most of the time. But the tools used in woodworking may themselves be a hundred years old and remain perfectly serviceable.

In a recent interview in Poets & Writers, author William Giraldi says that he does not believe that the internet will murder the book because “the automobile has yet to murder the bicycle.  The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect invention, and perfection dies hard.”

Indeed.  Books created 400 years ago still “work” and are available to modern users to share information and illumination as they always have.  A computer 10 years old is often an unusable relic that everyday folks can not easily revive, and the reward for reviving it would be unappealing (who needs to revive a computer with less storage than the average Word document takes?).

Maybe watches are perfect inventions as well, but I posit that letters are a perfect invention.  All who are literate can share a piece of themselves to connect with another in a form that can last for generations.  We have letters dating back hundreds (thousands!) of years.  We can return to them for information and illumination.

What will an old ipod do for us in 15 years?

In a July 7, 2011 New York Times article on the increasing popularity of apothecary-made personal care items, the author interviewed the makers and users of these old-school items:

Cheryl Richardson, 51, the author of five self-help books, was delighted when she first visited the Farmaesthetics headquarters in an old renovated trolley barn in Newport, R.I., and saw where some of her powder exfoliants and remedy oils are made.

“There were bottles of herbs, mortar and pestles,” Ms. Richardson said, marveling. “There were plants. I was so blown away, who does this? This is a whole new thing.” Or a new old thing.

Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft confirmed for me that feeling of alienation at the loss of “doing things” which I often feel when I spend too much time in my head in front of a computer.  He helped me understand more deeply why I yearn to do things with my hands. The activities of letter press and woodworking and canning of food require technical expertise, but the gaining of that expertise brings with it physical results–a card, a carving, a jar of tomatoes!

I do these activities to renew my connection to the world.  As mail artist Carolee Gilligan Wheeler shares in her zine Practice Being Human (available in pdf download here) her daily routines of endlessly scrolling through websites left her feeling blank and uninspired.  A self-imposed, month-long hiatus from the internet revitalized her; she re-discovered the joys of the physical world around her.

So what is my point? It’s that I think many of us are feeling an urge to connect with things that are, in a way, more human.  Natural forces, like pressure pushing inked type into cotton paper or steam sanitizing glass jars to fill with garden-grown tomatoes, feel, well, natural to us.  As we forge ahead into a world where most of us can’t tinker with and repair everyday objects , I think there will always be a good portion of us who feel a pull toward the physical, the comforts of producing something of value, and a sense of confidence at our self reliance.

I encourage you to reconnect with something you used to do (sew? garden? paint?) or try out a new skill.  There is comfort and renewal in the making…a perfect antidote to the February Funks or the Digital Age Doldrums.

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5 Responses to The Lure of Nostalgia and Physicality

  1. Lovely and thought-provoking post. Thanks.

  2. I ran across your blog after accessing another and was so glad I did. I am surprised at how few people send Christmas cards, notes, letters, etc. Having our friends’ and families’ written words are true treasures, especially if we don’t have that person with us anymore. I wrote a blog about discontinuing the teaching of cursive writing in the Indiana school system, that goes along with keeping snail mail. I’d be interested in your feedback. http://www.dianeweidenbenner.com/2011/07/writing-our-own-history.html

  3. Pingback: Interesting: a new old thing… | Wherefore Art thou?

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