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Tangible Things: Why (Physical) Books Matter

The three best gifts I’ve been given are, in order, a book, a typewriter, and a book. The typewriter should probably tip you off that I’m biased toward the archaic. We’re not talking about one of those nifty portable electrics here; Gerry (that’s his name) is old enough to be my grandfather and just as loud as any deaf old man trying to hear his own voice. There’s something grounding about typing a letter mechanically—it could be the necessity of focusing on each letter, or the constant background of rhythmic clacking, like a Gregorian chant performed by steel monks. Using a typewriter is a substantially different writing experience than using my laptop. But I digress. This isn’t about my typewriter. It’s about those other two favorite gifts, my books.

One is a comfortingly heavy, black-bound, gold-edged copy of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, containing Douglas Adams’ famous five-book trilogy and an accompanying short story. My best friend Jessica gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday. I refer to it as “my other bible”. Doug Adams had this incredible, inimitable voice that was both insightfully profound and profoundly hilarious, not quite what you’d expect for a comedy-cum-scifi author. Years later I still cry laughing when I reread it, and if I ever write something half as worthwhile as he did then I’ll be doing okay. Whenever I move I always bring that book with me as a reminder of why I love those stories and why I love Jess. Both rightly glorify quirkiness and have permanently directed my sense of humor.

The other book isn’t much to look at: it’s small, beaten up, and has the front of a pocket-sized notebook taped on where one cover used to be. That’s why it took me a second to recognize what it was when I found it in my mailbox one day. Out of all the things I am lucky to own—pricey Apple products, a few pieces of nice jewelry—no one would guess that this book was the best gift I’ve ever gotten. Ironically, it is a copy of the world’s least rare book, the New Testament, with Psalms appended to the end. It looks like someone shoved it in a backpack and carried it through swamps, and that’s exactly what happened to it when my dad was deployed in Vietnam over forty years ago. I read this every day, he said, except for the one day I didn’t. If you saw his Purple Heart I’m sure you could guess what happened next. The dark place I was in wasn’t exactly a terror-filled jungle, but it often felt that way. I don’t know quite what to say except that, when not much else could, it helped.


I spend a lot of time around books. That’s unavoidable when you’re a college student and a library employee. Specifically, I work in Houghton Library, which is the main home of Harvard’s rare books and special collections, so these aren’t just any books. They’re illuminated 12th-century manuscripts and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s personal journals and William James’ hand-annotated philosophical library. Let me tell you—they’re gorgeous. Every single one of them. I’m lucky to have the job of handling them, admiring them, and helping to safeguard them. To feel awe over those kinds of artifacts, ones that were loved and labored over meticulously, is essentially human.

Even five-dollar airport paperbacks can become precious. To take things that are new and interact with them deeply, bending and pressing and marking them, is exactly what humans do. We love making our mark on things. We do this with cars and bracelets and furniture but none of these things let us leave our fingerprints on deep literary (therefore historical) traditions and stories significant to their readers. The physical book is a direct, tangible way to access ideas that are bigger than us. Each and every book we handle carries not only the history of its author but the history of its users—the places they have taken it and the places it has taken them. Dog-eared pages and highlighted passages mark out a ‘we were here’ that changes every time a drink gets spilled on a corner or a cover gets scratched in a bag. The physical book can be a link between a treasured friendship, a treasured series, and the jokes they have in common. It’s a father speaking through decades to a daughter he didn’t have yet.


I will be the last to deny that eReaders are wonderful things. They have expanded access to literature and reignited a love of reading in many people who were drawn to the gadget but stayed for the words. Moving a Kindle out of my dorm room is easier than hauling forty pounds of books. Trust me, the impracticality of paper doesn’t really hit home until you’re hunting for one manuscript among multiple floors of huge rooms filled with stacks and stacks of books. The move to digital books not only preserves the written word better than a sewn-together block of paper, it makes it easily searchable and makes it simple to highlight a passage or instantly share a quotation. Electronic books clearly have a well-earned place in the world; have they usurped the place of their low-tech predecessors? Your New Testament isn’t valuable on its own, you may say. Your dad thinks it’s important, and so do you, but in the end, it’s just a beaten-up book. I can read the New Testament online from anywhere at any time; the words will be essentially the same. What’s the fuss about, then? It is possible to deny the value of books and dismiss these arguments as technological phobia and sentimentality. But show me a human who cares nothing for sentimentality and I’ll ask you where the human is.

Lauren is a junior Philosophy concentrator at Harvard with an absurd enthusiasm for Latin, typewriters, and other old things. A third-generation Bostonian, she enjoys long walks on the (wicked cold) beach and beating the Yankees. She spends most of her free time dancing, choreographing, or thinking about dancing and choreographing for the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company and TAPS.
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