The value of non-rare books: paperback musings of a digital humanist

Sometime last January I realized I was book-deprived.  Since September I had been shuttling back and forth among my new office in Princeton, my rented room in town, and the apartment I used to live in with my husband in Boston.

One Saturday morning in snowbound Boston I awoke in my old bed to a no-longer-familiar sight: shelves and shelves of books filled my vision.  I immediately felt better: less lonely, less stressed, and a little more wise.  Not to downplay the effect of waking up next to my husband, but I realized it was the books.  When I moved just enough stuff to Princeton to last me the year, I had brought little more than an armful of books, most of which lived in a small bookshelf in my aforementioned office.  Most of my personal reading material I put on my Kindle.

At home, every room was stuffed with books.  None of them valuable.  None worth digitizing or preserving, and with the exception of a complete set of my mom’s novels — all first editions, all signed to me — none worth designating a “special collection.”

And yet, there they were.  Little repositories of memory, sitting on shelves and putting me in context.  There were the YA fantasy novels I’d gotten addicted to in graduate school, stories of girls with swords who killed dragons and saved kingdoms.  Black Beauty and National Velvet neighed at me from another shelf, recalling all the time I’d spent on horseback.  James Herriot smiled at me, full of love for All Creatures Great and Small and the many years I was convinced I would become a veterinarian.  Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sailed the waves alongside Horatio Hornblower. And, holding it all together, Aslan told Lucy Pevensie she was a lioness and Galadriel reminded Frodo that even the smallest person can make a difference.

I left the bedroom (where we kept the genre fiction) and moved through the rest of the apartment.  Former professors, and all they had taught me, were lined up like shorthand notes in the spines of the books they had assigned.  My own growth as a scholar was detailed in the books I had accumulated for my dissertation.  John and Abigail Adams spoke to each other of love and intellect shared across the years and oceans they were apart.

My husband’s books were everywhere as well.  Some I had read, others I had not, but they interleaved with my library, a literary embodiment of the marriage of true minds.

I sat down in the living room, and looked at our collection of War and Peace (3 copies in two editions) and I thought about the importance of non-rare physical books.

I spend most of my days looking at lit screens.  My job as Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities means that I work mostly with digital surrogates of rare materials.  The disc out of alignment in my neck (I fell off several of those horses back in middle school) means that I physically cannot read anything that weighs more than one pound.

Books are heavy.  Books take up space.  And it is the information or the characters or the story that live in our imaginations and direct the course of our lives, that is alive, and not the pulped trees and chemicals which bind them into neat boxes — as fascinating and illuminating as those codices can be in a rare-book context.

And yet.  I don’t look at my Kindle and see memories.  I look at it and see a gadget.  Even though until it was invented I despaired of ever being able to read my favorite novel ever again.  War and Peace weighs substantially more than one pound!

Where does that leave me?  I don’t know.  Physical books are not going away.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something — and it isn’t Digital Humanities, I can promise you that.

But libraries are putting the focus more and more on special collections and moving their non-special/ordinary? collections off site and entering into collaborative borrowing agreements.  I can’t and won’t argue with this.  Space is limited.  Money is limited.  Time is limited.

These days I buy almost all of my books in electronic format, unless they are art books or unless I think my husband (who refuses to buy a Kindle) will want to read them.  Somedays I wonder whether that means my shelves will tell a story that basically ends in 2010.

When we finally moved to Princeton in June, I almost gave away the vast majority of my history books — everything I had kept in the half-hearted belief that I might someday teach an American history survey class to undergraduates.  My husband convinced me otherwise.

“Are these good books?”
“Then keep them.”
“We don’t have the space.”
“Your new office will have more bookshelves, right?”
“Then put the history books there.”
“But I don’t need them anymore.”
“Someone will. And then you can give them a book.”

My favorite professor from college, Margaret M. Mitchell (now Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a woman with her own interesting relationship to literature) often invokes St. Augustine to say that the New Testament exists because someone had a letter and then handed that letter to someone else saying: “Take. Read. Good for you.”

Take. Read. Good for you. That to me, is the value of books.


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