Nostalgia for Nostalgia: The Place of Dead Paper

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At the Richmond Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, the creaking rotating metal racks held some paperbacks that never changed in all the years I frequented the place; forgotten, tattered, seldom if ever checked out, and in no danger of being cleared away to make way for the newer models any time soon.  (The Andre Norton novel to the left was one of them, and when I stumbled across it the other day, I hadn’t seen the title or image since my childhood.)

This was 1975.  Or 1976.  Or 1974.  There was a barbershop on the corner of Geary and Commonwealth where I’d be taken for a haircut maybe every other month.  Its selection of reading material included horror and science fiction comics, some dating, I’m sure, to the nineteen fifties.  Some were shreds, images, panels, words and images with no context but their age.

Nineteen fifties nostalgia was a pop culture phenomenon of the nineteen seventies (although it was waiting to erupt as early as 1969, when Sha Na Na appeared before a Woodstock audience that went from stoned to baffled with the first glint of Saugerties sun off Brylcreem and gold lamé).  It affected movies, television, and musicians from Roxy Music to Elton John to Led Zeppelin.  It did not, so far as I remember, affect the way people dressed, which tells you it was largely a manufactured phenomenon, a reactionary lie, an omen of what was coming at decade’s end, popular culture preparing the way for the great leap backwards.  I don’t remember it fondly.

But those old comics haunt me the way half-remembered movies do.  You can summon an image, or just a feeling, the stifling air in the theater: it seems to have drifted off the screen, out of a brownish dusty lamplit interior from a western you can’t name.

Today, if you know where to look, you can find everything you want, or for a moment think you want.  Every paperback, every comic book, every old movie can be found and bought, and you haven’t even left your desk.

I’m not sure about the comics.  I don’t remember enough; I haven’t the clues that would help me hunt them down.  I’m not even sure (though I make this part of the story when I tell it) that they were EC comics dating from before the censors cracked down on the business.  I’ll never find them.  Only the mood remains.  And I’m glad of that.

You can find everything you want, but don’t expect any of it to show up at the barbershop or the library.  The machines run too efficiently these days.  Nothing is left to chance or neglect.

Neglect was a given in 1975.  Decay was the natural course of things, irreversible.  There was no turning back the clock to the old America, only turning the radio or TV dial.

Then again, the nineteen fifties was the age of atomic panic, and it infected the screen.  The movies of that period were about the end of the world.  The movies of the seventies picked up the thread and gave us the world after the end of the world.  And a recurrent image of the end and after the end was paper blowing through the streets.  From the movie makers’ perspective, it was an inexpensive way to show the effects of the atomic blast, the wind that blows and sucks.

Even the dusted paperbacks on the creaky racks, intact enough that you can turn the pages, feel suited to the displaced who haunt (almost the right word) the branch (also a good word) libraries: passengers in a transit lounge, killing time, but not really waiting for the bus that’s never coming. 

The books and their readers are the history of what didn’t happen.  The stubborn presence of the paper is the trace of that history on the present, the inertial persistence of history’s losers, not yet lost.