Do you remember how there was a point — early in the pandemic — when people were writing down the ways in which they would improve themselves during their extra at-home hours? They were going to download a language app and become proficient in German; they were going to have the time for two-a-day workouts; they were going to pull out their guitar again and finally get through that list of songs for beginners, starting with “Love Me Do.”
Instagram life coaches wrote lengthy captions about capturing the moment, about the ways in which you can #BossUp even when things are tough.
But then reality hit. This wasn’t summer camp or a productivity workshop; this was an exercise in unthinkable, prolonged grief.
“When something like that happens, a health crisis, or a loss, or something just really unexpected, you suddenly realize, ‘I’m really not in control of how my future plays out or if things go well or not,'” author and grief counselor Claire Bidwell Smith told Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams.
“That realization, when you are hit with it, just makes you feel uncertain,” she continued. “That uncertainty that we’re all sitting in right now during this pandemic, that reminder that we’re all having right now that, is that we can’t always plan for the best outcomes, and we don’t know what’s coming, and we don’t know how we’re going to be affected. To sit in that space is what happens when you go through a big loss.”
And as we’ve been sitting in that space, many of us have reached for items that reliably provide comfort. For me, it’s been oversized sweatshirts, bowls of noodles, too many hours of Animal Crossing — and thinking about a box of books that are somewhere in my parents’ basement. Books that defined and molded my childhood.
There’s “Ramona and Her Mother” by Beverly Cleary, which contains a passage that I still think about any time I pull out my toothbrush. “All her life she had wanted to squeeze the toothpaste. Really squeeze it, not just one little squirt.”
And then she did, and “the paste coiled and swirled and mounded in the washbasin. Ramona decorated the mound with toothpaste roses as if it was a toothpaste birthday cake.”
Somewhere in the box are a couple “Nancy Drew” books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. I can see physical evidence of the passage of time. The copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” that my mother would read to me when I was a baby is at the bottom of the pile, while Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a middle school favorite, ended up closer to the top.
I have a habit of digging through that box when my life is upended. Some of these life changes seem relatively inconsequential in retrospect — moving states, going off to college, my first “big” break-up — but regardless, I was drawn to the stories I knew so well that they felt like mine. Amid the pandemic, I’ve started buying up used copies of some of the childhood books that meant so much to me, and I’m not the only one.
Desiree Bradley is a retired independent bookseller based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She said she always noticed after or in the midst of generation-defining tragedies and hardships — the Columbine High School shooting, 9/11, the Great Recession — she noticed a distinct uptick in customers coming in to purchase books that were standards of their childhood.
“I think some of it is tied to the themes found in many of these books, of triumphing over really tough situations,” Bradley said. “In fantasy books, there are beasts and monsters that are stand-ins for real-life issues of trauma and anxiety. And in books set in a simpler time, like middle school, where the main characters are overcoming issues like school bullying or fitting in, it’s a nice reminder to readers that they made it through situations that, at the time, felt impossible and survived.”
Bradley said that she thinks there is something intrinsically soothing about the feeling of nostalgia that many of these books can inspire. I asked around, and many of my own friends reported revisiting their old favorites during this uncertain time.
“I’ve been listening to the entire ‘Harry Potter’ series on audio while I try to push through regular office days,” one wrote via text. “It helps a lot, the nostalgia factor is really high for me and the fact that I know the story already is comforting.”
Another commented, “I’m revisiting ‘Mary Poppins‘ and love [it] even more as an adult what a pretentious, but kind-hearted, a**hole she is.”
There was a lot of Judy Blume and Ann M. Martin in the responses, and fantasy books like “Lord of the Rings,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Harry Potter” were frequently mentioned. When prompted, everyone I asked said that the main appeal of revisiting these books was found in knowing how the story was going to end, even when everything around us still feels so uncertain.
“Trauma takes away our gray areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after,” Dr. Valentina Stoycheva, an author and clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress, told the New York Times. “And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors — fashion, clothes, movies, music — that serve as a transitional object.”
Those transitional objects — much like a baby’s blanket or favorite stuffed animal — can help people through life changes and in navigating specific stressors by providing more outlets for self-soothing, Stoycheva told the Times.
Bradley gave me the example of how she used to carry a battered, coffee-stained copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” in her purse when she would travel via airplane. She was afraid of flying, and a quote from the book — “there should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen” — always calms her.
“The feeling of nostalgia is kind of hard to put into words,” Bradley said. “But I know when I pull out that book, I’m immediately transported back to a time when I felt safe and it felt like there was so much still left to discover. It keeps me from becoming jaded.”
I feel the same. One of my first, and best, pandemic purchases was the “Emily of New Moon” series by L.M. Montgomery. I’ve read the three books through twice now, each time savoring both the predictability of the stories and the narrative reminder that there can be beauty found in the anguish of isolation — something that bears repeating right now.