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Elegantly Old School: Nostalgia Books On The Rise

Dec 23, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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Before there was fast food, fast fashion and fast talking, there was a time when we set the table, cared for our appearance and admired elegance. This year, three authors set out individually to recapture that time in three separate books, each dealing with the topic of nostalgia and reclaiming older, more refined ways of life in the modern world.

Morning Edition's Linda Wertheimer sat down with Sally Singer, editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine (the paper's glossy for fashion and style) to discuss the new nostalgia movement and the three books that are heralding the return of the old.

In Let's Bring Back, fashion writer Lesley M. M. Blume provides bite-sized descriptions of "all sorts of things the author finds delightful or retro," according to Singer. "And retro can be ancient or it can be the 1980s, because Lesley is a youngish blogger based in New York.

"She is someone who is trying to live an elegant and somewhat careful life in a really fast city," Singer continues, "so she'll muse on everything from a red caboose at the end of a train, to all of her favorite candies and sweets from years past."

The second book the pair discussed is Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins. "This is a much more historical book about all the things that make the world magical and exquisite and complicated in certain ways," says Singer. It touches upon "everything from the color black, to a Joseph Cornell ballet that was never staged."

The final book that Singer recommends for a whimsical dash of history is Jennifer McKnight Trontz' Home Economics, which is a reworking of a classic homemaking guide. "It's a very proper update of a classic text," says Singer. "It is essentially an old-fashioned home economics book about how to care for your house and for your children, and how to live a proper and resourceful life at a time when people are doing everything on the fly and with less care."

'Luxury Doesn't Involve Money'

Singer emphasizes that the small luxuries that the three women praise, like laundry chutes or red lipstick, do not require a large budget to enjoy. The editor says that the new nostalgia movement is not about indulgence as much as it is about being resourceful, and highlighting the small delights of everyday life.

"It's not nostalgia per se," Singer says. "It's the idea of the charm, of a world that's charming and wonderful and nuanced — and interesting, and thought over. All of these books talk about being resourceful, and that luxury doesn't involve money. That's very important to all of them, and they were all written for this climate now, this post-economic downturn."

The Anti-Martha Stewarts

So how does this new idea of "home economics" differ from the one being popularized by homemaking stars like Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray?

"This is [home economics], but in such a different way," argues Singer. "The Martha Stewart approach to home economics is more of a hobbyist pursuit. What these women are thinking of, it's not about a scrapbook room — they are modern girls, they live in little apartments in New York City. It's not about the perfection of your Christmas tree and your Christmas ornaments. It's about knowing how to sew a patch on a garment or knowing how to darn a sock. Or knowing what the difference between broiling and steaming is."

Admittedly, some of the antiquated practices and customs that the women highlight in their books can seem a bit silly for a modern audience, like advising one to broil a steak for eight minutes on each side, or as Trontz puts in her book, that one of the "great dangers in the kitchen is piling eggs too high in a bowl."

But Singer argues that the joy of these volumes is in not taking their advice too seriously. "I think that's the fun of these books," she says. "You're shocked and horrified by some things, and dazzled and delighted by others. I think there's a section in Jessica's book, where in describing the color black, she goes from Victorian mourning to the look of the women in the Black Panther movement within about a paragraph, and you just think, bless her, she's just free-associating across the board, and it's fun."

Girl Scout Cookies And Civil Society

Singer says that the nostalgia movement is not necessarily about practicality, but about recapturing the joy and wonder of everyday life, a joy that is present in the lively writing found in all three books. She says that she is especially fond of Blume's way of phrasing her fascinations. "What I really love about her book is the way it is written. What she'll say about a red caboose on a train, 'like an exclamation point at the end of a long Jamesian sentence.' Incredibly pretentious and deeply wonderful all at once."

Singer also laughs about Blume's inclusion of a vintage recipe for Girl Scout cookies. "That is the most brilliant thing, because of course none of us would ever make a Girl Scout cookie."

Ultimately, these are books of small treasures; little passages that one can read before bed, imagining a more civilized life. And that, says Singer, is an elegant experience in itself.

"That's the ultimate luxury, that you could read a couple pages and learn just one thing and go to bed and dream about it," she says. "And it would be something worth dreaming about.

"In Lesley's case, it would be about the beauty of a one-piece swimsuit. She says, 'Bikinis are grand, but it's hard to live up to their expectations.' In the case of the Home Economics book, you could just read a section and go to bed thinking about how you're going to make punch the next time you have a party," Singer says.

"Taking care of one's home and one's self and one's friendships involve little rituals, and if we can just relearn those rituals, we can knit a civil society together in a different way that is both more meaningful and, in Jessica's word, exquisite."

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Let's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone
By Lesley M.M. Blume
Hardcover, 256 pages
Chronicle
List Price: $19.95
Read an Excerpt

Home Economics: Vintage Advice and Practical Science for the 21st-Century Household
By Jennifer McKnight Trontz
Hardcover, 176 pages
Quirk Books
List Price: $15
Read an Excerpt

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights
By Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
Hardcover, 336 pages
Nan A. Talese Books
List Price: $28
Read an Excerpt

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