I love this job… going from reviewing the less-than-subtle Poo What Is that Smell to what must be one of the most subtle popular science books I’ve ever read. The Nostalgia Factory takes on the nature of memory, particularly the memory of those who are in their 60s and older – a subject that will affect most of us, one way or another.
Part way through I was going to award this book five stars, and part of the reason for this is the beautifully written translation by Liz Waters. It really was a delight to read. Douwe Draaisma takes us smoothly into the way memories change with time, how memories from youth start to surface more and become more important, and the fragile connection between memory and reality. Two parts particularly stick out to my mind (as far as my ageing memory goes) – a powerful assessment of brain training and the whole ‘use it or lose it’ thing, and some fascinating observations on the differences between the way that we see the world in our late teens/early twenties and the way we remember seeing things at that age when we are 30 to 40 years older.
The reason I’ve not gone for the whole five stars is that the book is very slow. It makes some points over and over again – it is almost as if the whole thing was a magazine article that has been extended to make a (slim) book. There simply isn’t enough in it. I also found the chapter consisting of an interview with Oliver Sacks excruciating. While Sacks is clearly a hero for Draaisma, pretty well all written interviews are boring, and this was no exception. The only thing I got out of it was seriously downgrading Sacks in my opinion because he is apparently so dependent on his psychoanalyst that he has to have sessions over the phone when not at home. That Sacks believes in this pseudo-science is worrying to say the least.
Despite the limitations, though, this is an eloquent and elegant little book with some genuinely interesting (and perhaps worrying for someone in their late 50s) observations about the way memory changes as we get older.