The pleasures and pitfalls of nostalgia

Published 9:48 am Thursday, June 6, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

One of my favorite movies is “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It’s an animated feature from famous Japanese production company Studio Ghibli, and from the famous director Miyazaki Hayao. The English dub version features voices from famous actors including Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, and Jean Simmons.

I think I’ve probably watched the movie no less than a hundred times. I have plenty of great memories of sharing this movie with friends when I was younger, all gathered together in someone’s living room or someone’s dorm room to watch the story unfold.

The story is a delightfully weird tale about a wizard named Howl, a fire demon named Calcifer who lives in the moving castle’s fireplace, and a young lady named Sophie who gets cursed into looking like an old woman.

But many people might not know that the 2004 movie is actually based on a 1986 fantasy novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones. The original is also quite a whimsical tale featuring all three aforementioned characters, though the plot itself ends up quite different.

Recently, I decided to revisit the novel for the first time since I was in high school. I’m not usually one to reread books since I have so many that are still unread for the first time. But it’s been well over a decade, and at this point, I couldn’t remember how this original story went. So I was curious to spot the differences.

Luckily for me, the book is just as entertaining as it was the first time around. There are plenty of characters which didn’t make it into the movie, who complicate the plot and bring forth surprises that I wasn’t expecting. And I’d forgotten just how funny the story actually is! Sophie and Howl banter back and forth, trading insults in a way they didn’t in the movie. (My favorite one is when Sophie calls Howl a “slitherer-outer” whenever he tries to slither out of any sort of unpleasant task. Almost nonsensical but funny!)

Lately, I find myself revisiting all sorts of things from my earlier days more frequently. Not just pulling out an old novel, but digging up TV shows and movies I used to watch when I was still in school. Some people get bored of watching the same things over and over again, but I don’t mind it. There’s something comforting about revisiting a story and knowing exactly what will happen.

Maybe you’ll even notice something new! (On a recent rewatch of another old favorite that I must have seen at least a dozen times already, for example, I finally noticed in the background a band poster on the wall. A neat little easter egg that isn’t important, but noticing it felt like discovering a secret treat that someone had thrown in.)

I know I’m not the only person who gets caught up in nostalgia like a fish getting caught up in a net. After all, there are plenty of TV shows that aired decades ago, for example, that are still easily accessible for a rewatch. You can find your favorite childhood books at your local library if they’re not still on your own shelves. Even Hollywood seems stuck in Nostalgia Land these days, opting frequently to “reimagine” or “reboot” stories that we’ve already seen once before, just for the chance of grabbing hold to the success of years past.

But it’s not just stories that we can feel nostalgic for. You can fondly remember something from your childhood – like a favorite meal or a place you used to hang out a lot with your friends – and that counts as nostalgia too. It could be any little detail, any old memory, that conjures up those specific feelings.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of nostalgia is a wistful or sentimental yearning for a return to the past or some irrecoverable condition. “Homesick” is listed as another definition. The word was first used back in 1756. Clearly, the feeling has been affecting people for a long, long time.

The physician who first coined the term used it to describe Swiss soldiers who were so homesick that they became malnourished and melancholy.

Maybe we aren’t as badly affected by nostalgia like that these days, but it can still hit a certain way that feels almost painful. Like you want to stretch out your fingers as you reach for something important, but it remains simply unattainable, just beyond your grasp.

Sure, we can reread old books and recreate childhood recipes and return to our old haunts. But nothing can quite capture those same feelings from years ago. They’re just a little off, like you’ve hung up a picture frame slightly off-center. Close, but not quite.

It’s not bad to indulge in a bit of nostalgia every now and then. Like I mentioned earlier, plenty of old favorites are still easy to get your hands on to enjoy over and over again. But let’s be honest: it’s never going to be exactly the same as it was in the “good old days.”

But perhaps you can focus on discovering new joy and creating new memories with them instead.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.