Has a novel ever changed your life, or altered your thinking in a profound way? If so, what was the novel and when did you read it? For me, it was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I read when I was about 20. My answer, it seems, is typical – not my choice of The Grapes of Wrath, although I am sure I would not be alone in choosing it, but in recalling a book from that period of life. The tendency to be able to retrieve a disproportionately large number of memories from the period between our mid-teenage years and late twenties is a well-established phenomenon known as the “reminiscence effect”. In his latest book, Douwe Draaisma provides an entertaining discussion of the phenomenon and how it relates to remembering in old age. He contends that when we enter our dotage, memories of our youth become not only more frequent but also more vivid. Among the elderly, large numbers of memories of early adulthood combine with their vivid nature, and often with life circumstances, to create what Draaisma calls a “nostalgia factory”.
Rather than concentrate on the relationship between old age, reminiscence and nostalgia throughout the book, Draaisma presents a series of discussions that vary in how directly they relate to his central theme. Of particular relevance is the increasingly accepted idea that our memories reconstruct our past and are rarely entirely accurate records of events. He argues persuasively that focusing on the accuracy of memory, as much experimental research has done, is to miss much that is important about how memories create meaning in our lives, especially in later life.
Elsewhere in the book, Draaisma’s subjects are less closely related to reminiscence. For example, he considers the experience of old age in modern Europe and notes that the bad things about being old still overwhelm the good, that the old have never been so healthy yet still strive to look young, that forced retirement was introduced just as people were in less need of it, and that old age is increasingly the longest stage of many people’s lives yet has the fewest gradations. A little later, he evaluates the dubious nature of commercial claims that we can improve our ageing memory by using memory exercises. While one may agree with Draaisma’s analysis of such claims, they seem a distraction from his most interesting theme. Finally, a chapter is devoted to an interview with the neurologist Oliver Sacks. Sacks is rightly admired, but it is unclear what this interview adds to the book’s main topic that could not have been said in a paragraph or two.
Draaisma writes in a lively style and he engages with topics of considerable social and psychological importance. He does not overburden the reader with experimental work and his use of varied sources is refreshing. Unfortunately, some may find The Nostalgia Factory insufficiently wide-ranging to succeed as a general treatment of memory and old age, whereas others may find it insufficiently focused on reminiscence to be a good introduction to that topic. Moreover, in his attempt to make major claims, Draaisma sometimes seems rash. As an example, at one point we are asked to accept that most people believe they can remember enough to reconstruct themselves when they were 20. I am not sure what such a belief entails. But I concede that I continue to believe that The Grapes of Wrath had a decisive effect on the 20-year-old me, whatever he was really like.
The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing
By Douwe Draaisma
Yale University Press, 192pp, £16.99
Published 30 September 2013