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It’s usually a chance sensory experience that kicks off nostalgia—a sight, smell, sound, an odd trace of breeze on the skin. Or it could be an encounter with a long-neglected object: that old shirt in the closet, a broken watch in a dresser drawer.

It seems nostalgia is more and more in vogue, maybe because our population is aging, or perhaps because we’re so sick of the present (an emotion that kicks in powerfully during election season). Yet most of us don’t think hard about the objects that have disappeared from our lives, or about the behaviors and feelings that went with them. One remedy is Ann de Forest’s blog Obsolescing, which focuses on fading technologies and their attendant experiences. Ranging over subjects as diverse as vinyl records and incandescent light bulbs, she points out

the distress and sorrow we feel as the objects of our life, the utilitarian technologies that once surrounded and defined us, fade into memory. News of a past technology’s demise makes us suddenly, desperately long to hold, to touch, to smell, to hear the things of our past. Like Orpheus leading his beloved from the Underworld, we look back to reassure ourselves that the everyday things we have known and loved and remember still exist in their full corporeal presence. (That’s why we revel in the sensory details—the typewriter’s clacking keys, the mimeograph ink’s distinctive scent.)

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t throw things out, you have abundant opportunities for such feelings as you wander through your own house. See the photo above for evidence.

Our "dry sink"

For me, the items with meaning tend to be ones that were used by others: for instance, the dry sink in our dining room at which my grandmother used to wash dishes in her own grandmother’s house. The very term dry sink is so outmoded it sounds like an oxymoron. Yet I picture her there as a girl—with a basin of water, I guess, and a towel, and harsh soap—in the drafty wooden home in a tiny riverside town. I try to imagine what she might have been thinking. It’s the mystery that draws me, the realization that I’ll never know that girl’s experiences.

As for my own old junk, I’m not terribly distressed at this point. That old typewriter that we bought when we started our business in 1982—the only piece of technology we needed then!—holds no deep resonance for me. It’s just there because sometime in 2042 I may need to type a mailing label (if mail still exists then). Similarly, an old telephone lurks in the closet because we may someday donate it for use as a theater prop. Or because plastic will become scarce after the apocalypse.

I suspect, though, that if I weren’t so busy—if I had time to stop and really contemplate these old objects, as Ann has been doing—I’d have more serious pangs. When we stop using a certain technology, we change our patterns of behavior, our ways of thinking, and so, to some degree, it’s the mystery of our own selves that we’re losing.

P.S. Thanks to Mayowa Atte at the Pens With Cojones blog for the fine review of my novel The Shame of What We Are. He found the book “weirdly enlightening” to read. It was that way to write as well.

Vacation Technoreads

September 2, 2010

All current fiction must be historical, I decided some time ago. It’s a price we pay for technology.

What I mean is this: The details of our lives, the sights and sounds that give fiction its life, change so fast that anything written today will seem dated in a year or two. If that doesn’t sound obvious, take an example. A couple of years ago, a writer might have described a driver stopping to ask directions. Now readers will wonder why the GPS isn’t working, or worse, they’ll assume the driver is technologically inept.

Reasoning this way, I figure a novelist might as well date the tale immediately. If you’re writing today, place the story clearly in 2010, acknowledging that readers in 2013 will find it quaint.

So, picking up a quick vacation read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson—one of the few times I’ve managed to get to a bestseller within five years of its pub date—I was nonplussed to come across passages like the one below, when the heroine, punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, decides on a new computer:

Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.

Originally published in 2005, translation copyright 2008, and already so outdated that geeks might laugh. This confirms my argument, I suppose, though the excessive detail still makes the author’s point about Salander’s obsession, and perhaps will continue to do so 20 years from now. Maybe that’s another possible tack, then—wade so deep into the nitty-gritty of the characters’ environment that the reader can’t help but accept it as a world of its own, whether dated or not.

My “literary” opinion of Larsson’s mega-phenomenon? Its dense, driving plot, spiced with multifarious secrets, conspiracies, violence and sex, helped pass time on the airplane. Yet I didn’t care how the mystery turned out, and the characters developed so little that I feel no compulsion to read the other volumes in the trilogy. Until I’m stuck on another plane. (I do admit to a vague curiosity about what the dragon means.)

By the way, Larsson’s underlying assumption—that a girl with tattoos and facial pierces looks out of place in the workaday world—itself seems, by today’s standards, almost quaint. Maybe the Swedes are stuck on an old-fashioned twentieth-century airbus; if so, at least they aren’t being charged for luggage.