Paracosms in Writing and Music

When I turned to the editorial page of the local paper this morning, I learned a new word and a wonderful concept.

David Brooks, a writer for The New York Times, and several friends “threw financial sanity to the winds” to follow Bruce Springsteen on tour through France and Spain , because supposedly the crowds are even more intense than their American counterparts. 

Young European fans know every word of songs The Boss recorded twenty years before they were born.  Their enthusiasm “sometimes overshadows what’s happening onstage,” says Brooks.  The moment that spawned his article was seeing “56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air…and bellowing at the top of their lungs, ‘I was born in the USA.‘”  

How could this be, especially since in Springsteen’s music, USA often means New Jersey?

Brooks asked himself the same question and borrowed a term from child psychology to help understand it.  The word is paracosm, meaning a world in imagination, “sometimes complete with with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws that help us orient ourselves in reality.  They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.”

Children do it, says Brooks, and as adults we continue the habit.  Then he adds the observation that is the point of this post:

“It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes.”

Springsteen’s New Jersey.  J.K. Rowling’s English boarding school.  Tony Hillerman’s Navajo country.  221B Baker Street.  Downton Abbey.  Tolkein’s Edwardian rural England, aka, The Shire.

Hob Lane, near where Tolkien lived as a boy

I often think of the books I hate to see end, the kind that inspire fans to continue the story on their own, as I described in a recent post on fan fiction  Character remains the essential ingredient – we want to follow Harry, Ron, and Hermione wherever they may lead us – but in his article David Brooks points out the critical nature of the world where they more and act and love and fight.  We wouldn’t really want to see the Hogwarts gang on Sunset Boulevard anymore than we’d want Sam Spade in St. Mary Meade, working a case with Miss Marple.

“If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come,” says Brooks, echoing Field of Dreams, a movie that largely took place in a cornfield.  “If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place…if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism…sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.”

I think this is an important thing to consider – one you seldom read about in books on writing but which instantly resonates when called to mind in the context of our favorite fiction.

But let’s end with The Boss

One of Springsteen’s best known songs, “My Hometown,” moves me the way “Born in the USA” moved a stadium full of Spaniards.  Hometown for me is part of a paracosm, a special kind of imaginary landscape.  I’ve said elsewhere that when I was young, we moved around too often for me to have any sense of a hometown, yet the moment I say the word I can see it vividly, with eyes opened or closed.

We’ll let the master paint the picture, since someone (I forget who) once observed that only a troubadour of Springsteen’s calibre could make you nostalgic for New Jersey.

Enjoy the paracosm.

6 thoughts on “Paracosms in Writing and Music

    • The idea makes a lot of sense. Earlier I scanned the titles of some of my favorite books, ones I’ve read more than once, and all of them have a richness of world that matches the richness of characters.


  1. Enjoyed this. Especially the Springsteen references + hometown, since my hometown is, uh, Asbury Park of Springsteen fame. And to answer that ‘someone’ you quoted: yes, you really can be nostalgic about New Jersey
    : )


    • Well, I spent the first nine years of my life in Poughkeepsie, NY, and some of the best summer vacations of childhood were on the New Jersey shore. Also, as a teenager, I spent an autumn week with a friend in his hometown, right across the river from NYC, and that helped shape my image of “hometown,” so my comments aimed at jest rather than insult.


  2. Great post, Morgan – I’d read the Brooks article, too and appreciate your larger take on it. There really is a very deep thing about “place” for the human soul.


    • Certainly some places speak to us very deeply. I saw the importance of place echoed again in the July 9, issue of Time, in a nice remembrance of Nora Ephron that Tom Hanks wrote. “Her writing was always voice and detail,” he said. And, “Nora, with her sense of story, understood the value of the turn-by-turn realism of her character’s trek.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s