Comedian John Hodgman has written on many occasions that nostalgia is a “toxic impulse.” And while I am, by nature, a deeply sentimental person prone to intense bouts of reminiscence, I’ve always tended to agree with him, at least theoretically. The urge to look only to the past for comfort seems troubling and isolating, and even threatening in a political context. So, I surprised myself recently by discovering how important revisiting — rewatching, rereading, re-listening to — art and media has become to me.
Last winter, I began the project of rereading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This wasn’t a typical decision for me: I’m not sure there are many, if any, other books I’ve reread in their entirety. In fact, I often make it a point not to reread. But I was feeling the pull of a resurgence of The Lord of the Rings popularity on social media, wondering about the details of the mythos I had surely forgotten over the decade since I’d last touched the books. I was also curious about themes in the series that I was seeing discussed for the first time, like found family, trauma, and, as in a beautiful essay by artist and writer Molly Ostertag, queer love.
So, I tried the books again, and I loved them — and got a great deal out of them — in a way that falls along the lines of the typical commentary about rereading. I caught nuances I didn’t see the first time around, better understood the beauty of side plots (Tom Bombadil stans rise up), thrilled in the anticipation of remembering that an important moment was rapidly approaching, and developed a more morally complicated (and thus more exciting) understanding of my favorite characters.
But as lovely and important as those insights can be, that’s not quite what I want to consider about the reread. What I’m thinking about begins with this: I’m a very fast reader, but it took me over six months to read these four books. That comes from the fact that I felt compelled to stagger them between reading new books — which comes, in turn, from the fact that I felt oddly guilty about spending my time rereading.
Spending hours on a book I had already spent hours on before felt “unproductive” to me, even as I was enjoying myself. I have precious and finite time to read for fun: is it a waste not to use that time as efficiently as possible, to encounter as many new works as I can?
I’ve wondered something similar while in the process of my seventh or eighth re-listen to the entire catalogue of my favorite podcast, “Rude Tales of Magic.” Sure, I’m still excited about it, but shouldn’t I be using this time to catch up on other podcasts, or to start one of the many new ones I’ve wanted to try? Isn’t it excessive, and perhaps indicative of a fear of new things, and, in short, a waste of time to return to something this often? The answer I want to suggest here is no, not necessarily.
Aside from the benefits I’ve already mentioned of second and third and nth rounds of engagement with some form of media — the “fresh set of eyes” phenomenon, let’s call it — I’d like to push back on notions of enjoying art as a form of “consumption.” This piece itself has been hard to write without resorting to words like “consume,” “content,” or “cultural product” to generalize about various kinds of art and entertainment; those words are connected to exactly the concern I want to address. Why should we describe — and, as a result, define — the experience of art in the language of capital?
Of course, the creation of art involves labor, and thus value. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise, nor to imply that artists should not derive income from doing their work — they should, and it should be generous. I do mean to suggest that the way we as an audience interact with that work often glosses over what is actually important about it. An emotional, community-based experience of creation is replaced with a demanding, consumerist hunger that leads only to toothless art and toothless reactions to it.
Linked to that, then, is this fixation I — and probably many of us — have experienced: a desire to quantify entertainment intake solely for the sake of quantifying it, so that I can feel like I have been sufficiently productive in the illustrious field of “watching television.” But letting myself take the time to re-engage has affirmed for me that interacting with art shouldn’t be so transactional, or so looped into the productivity culture of capitalism. As I’ve written here before, “leisure is important, even if it doesn’t produce concrete value.”
Take time with art because you like it, because you hate it, because you need background noise, because you relish in building a mental encyclopedia of deep cuts and lore, because you want to see your friends’ reactions to it, or because you find it strange or confusing or difficult to process. If that means you end up making your way through the same show several times a year, then that’s what it means. If it means you don’t get to read every single book ever written because you took some extra time to return to the one that got under your skin, then that’s good too.
Slowing down — reacting again and again to the works that mean the most to you — shouldn’t be a burden either, of course. I don’t want to get carried away in the “toxic impulse” of falling back on only the familiar and the known.
But I’ve realized that when that’s what I need, that’s what I should do, and when I need something new, I’ll look for that too, decoupled from any artificial, consumptive motivations. So, pick up an old favorite, even a silly or objectively bad one — who’s counting? — and if you need me, I’ll be watching “Veep” again.
Molly Cutler is an Assistant Editor for The Prospect and a TV & Shows Critic who often covers podcasts and internet art. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @clarinautilus.