“Everything written down these days and worth reading is oriented towards nostalgia,” one of the characters in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch declares.

How handy to have David Berry’s new book On Nostalgia within reach, to illustrate the enduring interest in the matter, decades later.

(Cortázar’s novel was published in Spanish in1963, in English translation by Gregory Rabassa in 1966: Reese and I have undertaken to read it this summer, and we’ve barely begun, so if you’d care to join us, you’re welcome.)

Berry begins with definitions and how they have changed over time. “If asked, most of us basically define nostalgia as bittersweet memory.”

But he goes a little deeper: “Nostalgia is a form of reconciliation: not just of who we were with who we are, but with the idea that either of those questions has a settled answer. It helps us believe we might be more than just this longing.”

(This is the kind of question that arose for me recently with my reread of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Books, more often than other art forms, encapsulate that kind of longing for me, but I enjoyed his thoughts on film and music too.)

He also wrestles with the complications that emerge: “If my Christmas tradition involves watching a digital stream of Scrooge – a 1951 film, based on an 1843 novella, that I watched on VHS in the 1990s because my parents grew up watching it on TV in the 1960s – how do we meaningfully separate the layers of first-hand longing and second-hand nostalgia?”

Most readers will have an example of those layers in their own experience. And Berry is consistently careful with his tone, modulating it to widen his readership while openly acknowledging the complexities and the variety of possible interpretations and responses:

“Keeping it broad enough to be palatable, and trying to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, I would argue art is any creative output, unbound from the limits of factuality, that seeks to interpret the world through the framework of a particular medium – anything from cave painting and interpretative dance to video games and, of course, books.”

One of the books considered in detail is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011). And the Star Wars franchise is discussed too (as evidence of the ways in which art and nostalgia intersect and our interaction “ceases to be nostalgia and just becomes an intrinsic part of the world”).

He also considers nostalgia’s role in popular politics, where the aim is “usually trying very hard to overwhelm rationality, which makes a knee-jerk emotion like nostalgia incredibly useful”. And the interaction with the market-place: “Selling nostalgia is rarely more lucrative than when you won the trademark on the object people already use to define some part of what they once were.”

Much of the prose is rooted in the anecdotal and philosophical, but there are some data-heavy bits which reveal a different level of detail in the research, while still aiming to maximize the lifespan of a publication which includes pop culture references. Berry does a fine job of selecting recognizable and successful illustrative elements, like this consideration of American viewers’ dedication to the mockumentary comedy series The Office.

Despite this, one credible estimate suggests that this version of The Office, all by itself, accounted for more than 7 percent of all viewing among Netflix’s American subscriber base in 2018. It works out to something like fifty-two billion minutes of the show in that one year alone: enough for every one of Netflix’s sixty million or so American subscribers to have watched about two full seasons of The Office in 2018. Obviously that is not what is happening: even allowing for some first-timers or just first-time repeaters, there is some not-inconsequential segment of Netflix’s audience that has made watching The Office something between an annual tradition and a daily routine.

Not only with his definition of ‘art’, but in general, David Berry keeps his prose “broad enough to be palatable” and “descriptive rather than prescriptive”. It’s accessible enough to read it on the porch in the summer, but thought-provoking enough to set it down after a couple of chapters to allow the ideas to simmer in your mind.

More recently, his article “These Were the Days” in the July 11th Globe and Mail, observed and considered the reality of our present-day in the context of his thesis. “As hard as it may seem to believe at the moment, while thousands are still dying of COVID-19 and thousands more treat the prospect of visiting family as a minor miracle, we will one day look back on these times and wish we had them back.”

So just in case you couldn’t spot the present-day relevance of his topic, there you have it. (Berry’s article is available online, and the Globe’s coverage of COVID-19 is available without a subscription, but that still requires a membership and login.)

How about you? Do you appreciate this kind of cultural commentary? Are you reflected in the statistics about regular and repeated viewing of The Office? If not, what would you have selected instead of this TV show?