Nostalgia is a dangerous feeling to indulge. It transforms other people, including old versions of one’s self, into figures whose lone purpose is to lend texture and credence to a diorama of the past. And just as an elementary-school diorama of, say, a Roman frontier fortress, no matter how meticulously researched and constructed, can never convey the totality of what it would have been like to stand sentry in Germania circa 70 A.D., so the version of the past constructed by nostalgia is a distortion, albeit one that relies upon memory (itself a kind of distortion, as neuroscience tells us) and experience to weave what is in essence a fairy tale.
Nostalgia’s refractions aren’t limited to people, of course. Its influence extends to places, too, refusing to acknowledge that places have presents and futures—presents and futures that often don’t involve one’s self, hence the willingness to ignore them—but only pasts: your pasts. Whenever I visit the University of Chicago, for instance, Hutch Courtyard is never Hutch Courtyard, a pleasant flagstone enclave that’s served as a favored warm-weather gathering spot for generations of undergraduates, but instead the place where I sat reading Moby-Dick when I learned that my grandmother had died. That’s it. All of the hopes and dreams, joys and fears toted through that spot by millions of human beings for more than a century, brushed aside by my solipsistic longing for a past that wasn’t nearly as honey colored in the living as it is in the remembering. I recall seeing a picture of Prince Charles passing through Hutch Courtyard during a 1977 visit and thinking, There’s Prince Charles walking right by the spot where I was when I heard that Grandma died. Nostalgia, which presents the past as a meadow of boundless possibility, is actually quite constricting.
Hutch Courtyard is one of a dozen sites of its kind at the University of Chicago, the ground zero of my nostalgia. My decision to transfer from there after my second year—a decision I was wrestling with as I sat reading about Queequeg and Ishmael that spring—is the fork in time’s road that I revisit every day, peering down the path not taken as if it remained open. It’s been three years since I left, and the constant second-guessing, fueled largely by nostalgia, has long since grown wearisome, both for me and for the friends I often drag into my endless analyses, vexed by my inability to let the past alone. They try to be helpful. When I told my friend Ricky recently that I felt like I’d navigated college poorly, he replied with exclamatory glee, much like Charlie Brown after Lucy suggests that he suffers from pantophobia: “That’s it!” he said. “That’s the beauty of it! Everyone feels like they did college wrong, except for the assholes that you and I don’t want to associate with!” I laughed and felt better for a while, and knew that Ricky was right, and then went back to doubting the decisions of my twenty-year-old self.
And so last weekend I went back, stepping across the yellow tape my better impulses have strung around the campus and venturing toward the radioactive core of my regret. Ostensibly, I was there to visit friends I hadn’t seen in a while, but the visit was as much about laying my nostalgia to rest, though I hardly articulated this purpose to myself. In any event, it seemed I was doomed to fight the same old losing battle from my first glimpse of the moonlit campus. My war against nostalgia often plays out as a kind of internal counterinsurgency operation, nostalgia brazenly showing its face in the countryside of my heart, my superego ruthlessly deploying against it, trying to destroy the village to save it. But nostalgia is a wheedler, a bargainer, and not altogether unpleasant—in fact, it is more often quite pleasant—and as I passed each familiar building, memories and associations began piling up, overwhelming my defenses. I’d been prepared to feel this way, but no matter: sentimentality is too often my default emotional response. I’d been in Chicago for twenty-four hours, and I was already exhausted.
Luckily, as I discovered the next morning, the local populace was cooperating with my counterrevolutionary forces, in the form of the relocated Seminary Co-op Bookstore. For years, the Co-op had colonized the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary. Its shelves wound among pipes and boilers; its ceiling was low enough to require a permanent half crouch by anyone taller than five feet. Thirty dollars bought three shares in the Co-op, shares that entitled you to a small discount but which had supposedly never paid a dividend at fiscal year’s end. At the beginning of each term, I would descend into the warren of shelves, head towards the rear, and find my class listings, taking a copy of The Wealth of Nations or The Division of Labor in Society from a huge stack of identical editions as if it were a slice of wedding cake. The Co-op was my refuge in depressed days and hours, the days and hours—of which there were plenty—that my nostalgia erases when reconstructing my Chicago years.
But the Co-op has moved, eight feet up and one block east to the first floor of a building next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s splendid Robie House, displaced by the university’s forthcoming Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. I wouldn’t have a chance to linger among my ambered memories underground, but would instead have to confront the new reality of a clean, well-lighted Co-op. “It’s pretty confusing,” my old friend Nausicaa had warned me. She was referring to the store’s layout, which is indeed a bit perplexing, relying on pods of shelves that require a browser to constantly reorient his location in the alphabet of authors’ last names. But in all the ways that counted, the store made perfect sense to me.
The Co-op still offered an incredible bounty in a time of literary scarcity: no less than eight different versions of War and Peace (Penguin Classics, Penguin Classics Deluxe, Oxford, Norton…); obscure titles from deep within authors’ oeuvres; robust shelves of literary theory and continental philosophy. But aside from its rich selection, the Co-op bore little relation to the store I had known: a sense of well-spaced order had replaced the atmosphere of overstuffed clutter; beautiful big windows let in plenty of sunlight; plush new carpeting had replaced bare concrete; tables and chairs had usurped footstools as the primary seating option.
In all that unfamiliarity, I found freedom, a gleeful severing of a link to a past that I had been massaging and worrying until it bore little in the way of truth. The old Seminary Co-op had been an enchanted place, it’s true, a holdover from an older world, but its time had come. So long as the books remain, who cares? Let the university turn the old space into a laboratory of infernal economics, let the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project preserve the space in memory, but let the past be past. Wandering among the shelves, a slow transformation took place, my memories ceasing to appear like portals to a magical past and starting to look like themselves—like pictures of a time that, like most times in life, was complicated in its mixture of emotions. I browsed for a while, bought a copy of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and left in high spirits, glad to see the Co-op doing so well, and glad to no longer think of it as mine.
James Santel lives, writes, and teaches in St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in The American Scholar. He blogs at jsantel.blogspot.com.