Elegantly Old School: Nostalgia Books On The Rise Whatever happened to good manners, cocktail hour or knowing how to darn a sock? Sally Singer, editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, selects three new books that celebrate nostalgia and looking back to more exquisite, more refined times.
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Elegantly Old School: Nostalgia Books On The Rise

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Elegantly Old School: Nostalgia Books On The Rise

Elegantly Old School: Nostalgia Books On The Rise

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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 parents and admired elegance. A handful of books out this year explores the notion of bringing back some of these lost arts.

S: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Good morning.

SALLY SINGER: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let's just begin with the books. We've got three of them that we'd like to take a little peek into. One is called "Let's Bring Back" by Lesley Blume. Another is "The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite" by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins. And the third is "Home Economics" by Jennifer McKnight Trontz.

Sally, could you just give us a little, quick thumbnail sketch of each of them?

SINGER: Absolutely. "Let's Bring Back" is a compendium of all sorts of things Lesley Blume finds delightful and retro. And retro for Lesley can be ancient, or it can be the 1980s, because Lesley is a youngish blogger based in New York, and someone who is trying to live a sort of elegant and careful life in a really fast city.

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.

Jessica's book is a much more historical book about all the things that make the world kind of magical and exquisite, and complicated in certain ways - everything from the color black to a Joseph Cornell ballet that was actually never staged.

And the book on "Home Economics," which is by Jennifer Trontz, is an old- fashioned home economics book about how to care for your house and care for your children, and how to live a kind of proper and resourceful life at a time in which people are sort of doing everything on the fly and with less care.

WERTHEIMER: And ordering out.


SINGER: And ordering out. I mean, that's - it's a very proper update of a classic home economics text.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's obviously a theme of nostalgia in these books - a longing for laundry chutes, praise of red lipstick. What makes us look backward in this way? Why do these writers think we want to?

SINGER: I think what they're looking for - it's not nostalgia, per se. It's the idea of the charm, of the world that's charming and nuanced and thought over, to sort of find what makes things magical and what makes things resourceful and luxurious.

All of these books talk about being resourceful, and that luxury doesn't involve money. That's very, very important to all of them. And you can see they're all written for this climate now, this sort of post-economic downturn.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the book on home economics, the writer laments the actual skills of running a household that had been lost. I mean, you have to keep in mind that back in the day, we used to actually study home economics.

Here's a bit of tape from an educational film that was produced in Iowa in the '50s.


Unidentified Man: What is home economics? Is it the technical knowledge of the equipment in a home, or the understanding of how to create beautiful clothes and more attractive homes? Is the skill to prepare an attractive, nourishing meal or the ability to teach others these many things?


WERTHEIMER: So what do you think of that? I got to say that I don't that the idea of practicing home-ec is entirely lost. I mean, Martha Stewart has created an empire on that.

SINGER: But in such a different way. I mean, the Martha Stewart approach to home economics, it's more of a hobbyist's pursuit. What these women are thinking of, it's not about a scrapbook room. These are modern girls. They live in little apartments in New York City. It's not about, you know, 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 what the difference between broiling and steaming is.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I had a question about that. I was startled to note that Ms. Trontz suggests broiling a steak for eight minutes on a side. The result would be a hockey puck, in my opinion.

SINGER: I would say that that might be the case.


SINGER: She also thinks that one of the great dangers in the kitchen is eggs piled too high in a bowl. That's in the caution from the kitchen section, which I found very funny.

WERTHEIMER: So, Ms. Singer, some of the things in these books - you mentioned darning socks. I'm never going to darn a sock the longest day I live.

SINGER: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: Good Humor apparently had frog-shaped popsicles. There's some things that, you know, I don't want to bring them back.

SINGER: Well, I think that's the fun of these books. You're sort of shocked and horrified by some things, and dazzled and delighted by others. I don't know. I think there's a section in Jessica's book, where, in describing the color black, she somehow 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.

WERTHEIMER: Lesley Blume had in her book a couple of things that I really loved. One was bring back radio drama. I'm for that. And another was a recipe for Girl Scout cookies.

SINGER: I mean, that is the most brilliant thing, because, of course, none of us would ever make a Girl Scout cookie. The whole point about a Girl Scout cookie is that it arrives on your doorstep in a box, with a Girl Scout.

What I really love about her book is the way it's written, that she'll about, again, a red caboose on a train, like an exclamation point at the end of a long, Jamesian sentence - I mean, incredibly pretentious and deeply wonderful, all at once.

WERTHEIMER: But basically, these books are all little tastes, lists of things that you could have on your bedside table and, you know, even if you fell asleep in five minutes, you could read a couple of pages.

SINGER: But 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. And it would be something worth dreaming about.

WERTHEIMER: Bikinis are grand, but it's hard to live up to their expectations. And I think in the case of the "Home Economics" book, you could just read a section and go to bed thinking a bit about how you're going to make punch the next time you have a party.

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

Sally Singer is the editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Sally, thank you very much.

SINGER: Thank you.


WERTHEIMER: We were talking today about "Let's Bring Back" by Lesley Blume, the "Encyclopedia of the Exquisite" by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, and "Home Economics" by Jennifer McKnight Trontz.

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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


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