WASN'T THE GRASS GREENER?
A Curmudgeon's Fond Memories
By Barbara Holland
Harcourt, Brace. 235 pp. $23
Barbara Holland, like yours truly, is a person of a certain age, which means she is old enough to remember a lost world in which certain things were better than they--or what has come along to replace them--are today. This of course is the habit of advancing age, and often has more to do with mere nostalgia than with actual fact. But as the miniature essays in this quite engaging book make plain, on the way to the heights of virtuous modernity that we now occupy we lost or abandoned some things that really were better than their paltry substitutes.
The specific ones Holland mentions in "Wasn't the Grass Greener?" cover a broad range of uses and characteristics, but two themes predominate. The first is that many--card games, pianos, election night, front porches, liquor cabinets--"brought us together, and caused us to visit our neighbors and invite them into our houses." Too many of these have been replaced by ingenious devices--the Walkman, the personal computer, the cellular telephone--that are agents of isolation rather than community.
The second quality of these things is, if not exactly permanence, their capacity to be repaired and renewed. One of the most appealing of Holland's essays is called, simply, "Old Things." It celebrates fixing and darning and mending and all the ways in which we once kept clothing and furniture and automobiles and almost everything else in a constant state of restoration: "Generations gone before us, even recently before us, remembering the lean years of the Great Depression and then the scarcities of the war years, believed in keeping things. For them, endurance was a virtue; quality meant durability. Things were supposed to 'last,' an alien concept now."
This is plainly and simply true. "Planned obsolescence," the invention of an auto industry that wanted customers to replace their cars every five years, if not more often than that, now dominates every corner of the marketplace. Not merely do the landfills overflow with abandoned computers, as Holland notes, but right alongside them are abandoned phones and stereos and microwaves, all cheaper to replace than fix--and usually to replace with "better," i.e., more state of the art, equipment--which removes any economic incentive to repair them.
There is, as Holland knows, more than frugality at work here. Physical objects that last a long while become fixtures in one's life, transcending their mundane utility and establishing places for themselves in what seems the natural order of things. Their familiarity is at least as important as their utility; they convey a reassuring sense of permanence and stability, all the more so if they have been passed down from one generation to another; the cast-iron frying pan that one's grandmother used can have as much sentimental import as the certifiably antique sideboard in the dining room.
But too much thematic weight should not be attached to the nearly three dozen pieces in this book. Though Holland obviously means what she writes, she also is having good fun, not merely mourning and celebrating what has been lost but also taking well-aimed whacks at inviting targets. Remembering days when "poetry was . . . a pleasure for reader as well as writer," she remarks:
"The only people who still read poetry are poets, and they mostly read their own. In all major population centers you'll find a coffeehouse where poets gather to read works expressing their inmost feelings, a free and effortless new form of therapy. . . . Once considered an art form that called for talent, or at least a craft that called for practice, a poem now needs only sincerity. Everyone, we're assured, is a poet. Writing poetry is good for us. It expresses our inmost feelings, which is wholesome. Reading other people's poems is pointless since those aren't our own inmost feelings."
Overkill? Sure, but the observation is essentially true. So too are her comments on new buildings with windows that cannot be opened, on the home-away-from-home qualities of the neighborhood tavern or bar, on the drama of election night ("a glorious occasion, faster and more exciting than the World Series") before advance surveys and exit polls took all the suspense out of it, on the warmth and steadiness of radiators, on the infinite pleasures and imposing majesty of department stores (with a strong bow to the vanished Woodward & Lothrop store in downtown Washington).
Being of a certain age, I do wonder that Holland managed to write all these chapters and devote not a single one to trains, which to me are the greatest loss of all--followed closely by organ music between innings at the ballpark and emotional reticence on the part of politicians and movie stars--but that is a quibble. She loves all the right things, and hates all the right things, too. What more could a reader want?
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org