Here’s a fun fact about me: I love rereading my favorite books. There’s nothing better than falling back into a world and characters that I already know I’ll love, and I usually get something new out of it no matter how many times I’ve been there before.
However, when I reread these books and subsequently go to rate and review them, I find it pretty much impossible to do so objectively due to my own nostalgia around that book. I know that nostalgia can change how I react to something that I’m reading, but how much does nostalgia really impact my feelings about books?
Harry Potter: a case study
At the moment, I’m rereading the Harry Potter series for the 203948th time (approximately). Obviously I love every moment of it – who doesn’t love going back to Hogwarts?? – but I realized when I finish each book that I have no idea how to rate it.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to rate a Harry Potter book anything less than five stars, because reading them makes me feel like going home. Having read that series so many times and at so many different stages of my life, it’s basically like a comfort food at this point – safe and warm and familiar. Reading Harry Potter reminds me of being a child and discovering magic for the first time.
How can I possibly rate that objectively???
I know, logically, that the series has faults, but I’m willing overlook them because reading the books make me so happy. I can’t help but wonder, though, if I were reading the books for the first time now, whether I’d be able to look past those flaws – whether I’d rate them differently.
It’s pretty clear to me that my nostalgia plays a major factor in my enjoyment of that series. And to be honest, I’m perfectly okay with that. But if my experience of rereading Harry Potter is so impacted by nostalgia, what about my experience with other books?
When nostalgia strikes
When it comes to rereads, I’m much more generous with higher ratings than with other books. Of the eleven 5-star ratings I’ve given this year, six have been rereads. That’s more than half! Is that simply because I’m rereading books that I already think are good and therefore easily rate it high? Or am I clinging to the idea that something I used to love must still be good? How do I know if a book I used to love isn’t good anymore?
And it’s not just rereads that are impacted by nostalgia. Maybe a book is a retelling of another favorite story of mine. (For example, I read a lot of Pride and Prejudice retellings.) Maybe the book is a continuation in a series that I love. Or maybe it even just has aspects that remind me of another favorite book. When faced with a plot, characters, or story elements that are already familiar and beloved to me, I often have an easier time getting into it, which therefore makes it a more enjoyable read. That makes a difference when it comes to rating.
The fact is, it’s always easier to give 5 stars to books that I already have some emotional connection to. Whether that’s because I’ve read it before – and this time can pick up on things like foreshadowing and character development – or because I’m already fond of the characters or the world, nostalgia definitely affects my reading. So the question is now: is that a good or bad thing?
Nostalgia: pros and cons
On the one hand, I love getting to revisit stories that feel like home. Even just turning on a Harry Potter audiobook while cleaning or flipping through the pages of The Goose Girl is enough to put a smile on my face. Stories and characters like those have grown up with me and shaped who I am, so getting to experience them again is comforting and uplifting.
On the other hand, struggling to separate nostalgia from critical reading makes it difficult to be an objective reviewer. For example, I recently read the chapter sampler of Call Down the Hawk, the continuation of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and loved it mostly because I love returning to Ronan and Adam, characters that I already know. If I can’t separate my excitement about reading those characters from my actual assessment of the book, how will I be able to tell if it’s good? How can I give an objective rating and review if I can’t factor out nostalgia?
Then again, I don’t think my ratings and reviews are ever truly objective. I try to judge a book for its strengths and weaknesses as much as I can, but I’m always going to bring my own personal judgements and emotions to the table, and that includes nostalgia. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that bad if nostalgia impacts my reading experience and my rating, because that’s what happens when you have feelings about books. (And I do. A lot of them.)
There’s always the worry that nostalgia will make me overlook major flaws in a book – especially when it comes to books I loved a long time ago and would probably react to differently now – but I’d like to think I’m able to separate them enough to recognize that. In the meantime, I don’t think my nostalgia is going anywhere. There are always going to be stories and worlds that feel like home to me, and that’s always going to affect how I read books. And I’m okay with that.
Does nostalgia affect how YOU read? What books are you most nostalgic about?