The Library Keeps Making Me Cry
On Nostalgia and Writing Toward Mystery
Lately, standing in the children’s section of the library, I have been overpowered by the kind of nostalgia I used to be able to keep firmly at bay. It feels, from my unscientific conversations recently with friends, that many people are also experiencing a similar longing for something intangible, something that can give life at least a kind of cosmic mystery, here at what certainly seems like the end of all things.
Nostalgia comes in many flavors, many forms. It can take the dangerous shape of imagined national myths, substituting for a sense of history. It can take the more harmless, if vanilla, flavor of a personal nostalgia for better days, or days that we imagine were better for us, or at least more innocent. This kind of nostalgia too can be dangerous, accompanied by a sort of “return to Eden” mentality that denies all the knowledge we’ve gained and meekly asks for our blinders again. Then there’s the Proustian variety, a smell or a sight or a taste that activates a memory strand, stories unfolding into stories, childhood opened up.
This may be closest to what I’m feeling at the library, but it isn’t quite the same. There’s something more to it - it’s actually the opposite of specific, despite the small sense memories that open it up: it is a longing that gives way to a diffuse, unnameable feeling, one that feels big enough to climb inside and disappear.
My daughter has recently graduated to the big kids book section of our local library, and suddenly I find myself standing face to face with books I haven’t seen since I was nine or ten years old. Often these books even have the same covers, the same smells. I pull out a musty copy of a Susan Cooper book, or an original Ballet Shoes, or an old Choose Your Own Adventure - the Cave of Time! - or a John Bellairs mystery with an Edward Gorey cover. And I am overpowered. Not with the desire to be a child again, and not with the desire to read these books again, which (with exceptions) nearly always ends in disappointment, because these are books for children. No, the desire instead is to be transported back to that liminal space unique to childhood where everything seemed mysterious, the strangest things of the world were waiting to be discovered, and knowledge seemed endless and abundant, like an orchard the size of an ocean. I read books back then the way a tornado eats, swallowing whatever was in my path, no matter the size or subject matter. The only criteria seemed to be this: will a new world open up inside of me if I read this? Will this book be a portal? And almost always the answer was yes, because as a child you know nothing, and everything is a world you haven’t encountered.
In some ways, I am always trying to get back to that feeling: in my writing, in my reading, in my film watching and in the art I seek out. I call it mystery, not in the sense of a dead body and a detective, but in the sense that there is a door and I do not know what will happen when I open it. In her new book on writing, A Horse at Night, Amina Cain perfectly captures this feeling: “works that not only have the ability to leave themselves, but to never come back, to make sense of themselves in a larger, crazier way.” I have never stopped seeking that feeling, and I imagine most passionate readers have not. As William Gass writes, “readers begin by wanting to be anywhere but here, anywhere but Kansas,” Kansas of course not just home but the known, the flat, the place devoid of mystery or magic. You begin by loving The Wizard of Oz, and if you’re like me, you end up wanting the version where Oz goes on forever. (And then you watch the truly wild film Return to Oz, but that’s another newsletter.)
It’s a difficult subject to discuss or describe, to teach or talk about, this sense of mystery, I think in part because the further from childhood we get, the more out of reach it seems, like a dream that’s barely half-remembered. The cold light of day, the light of all the days since we were small, has burned that dream down to a very fine mist, hard to hold. As Maud Casey says in her book The Art of Mystery, “It’s not easy to talk about something that is a whispered invitation, a siren song, a flickering light in the distance.” Yet Casey is actively engaged in creating art that lives in the realm of mystery. Her latest book, City of Incurable Women, is a brilliant series of dreamlike portraits of women who were deemed hysterics and institutionalized at the Salpêtrière in Paris. The liminal space need not always be good magic; often it is uncanny, frightening, liberating only in its strangeness.
I spend so much time seeking this sense of mystery, so much time trying to get there in my writing, and I think many writers do the same. Many artists do the same. And yet my daughter does not need the language or the tools for such things; she simply picks out a book at the library that will take her away from Kansas (or DC) and into a land of mermaids, or fairies, or tiny people, or knights and wizards and quests. She lives comfortably in the place that so many of us are trying, I think, to get back to. It’s not precisely childhood, not that sweet or simple; it’s that wild, empty map of the imagination that lives there, waiting to be drawn. And of course, like Wendy, once we are grown up, we can never go back there again.
So find myself crying in the library, like an idiot, staring at the books I can’t pick up again because I’ve already visited those lands. I’m dependent now on the artists - the David Lynches, the Maud Caseys, the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls - who still believe cosmic mystery is a fit subject for art, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into a TikTok video or a content marketing plan. And as long as I still feel that pull toward the unknown, I too will keep writing toward it, even if I know I can’t live there forever. It’s still a nice place to hide, especially in these all-too-stark-and-knowable times, packed as they are with cruel headlines and the vicious banalities of fascism. The world could use more uncertainty, more mystery, more portals to a place where the future doesn’t seem determined; where the future is a dream, wide open, unknowable, unwritten by anyone and waiting just for us.