The Human Kind: The Humanity of Print Books

10:06 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

It was a fairly ordinary morning in early spring, in the middle of a 9 AM lecture hall on the works of Jane Austen. Persuasion was the topic of the day, and our professors were discussing the significance of the Baronetcy, the book of nobility with which the ridiculous Sir Walter Elliot was obsessed. And then, it was time for a bit of show-and-tell.

Photo courtesy Devoney Looser
Our professor brought out this book, a real copy of a Peerage from 1836, and then allowed us to pass it around and actually leaf through the pages. Some students barely glanced at the book as it passed by- it was 9:30 AM, after all, I suppose. But this little beauty got me thinking. 

There is such a constant, low murmur of conversation these days about the division between digital and print media. Adding one more voice to the cacophony may be pointless- it probably is- but I can't help but feel quite strongly when it comes to this matter.

When it comes to books and the stories they contain, there is a wonderful, magical balance between the tangible and the intangible. The stories live in the pages and in readers' imaginations- nowhere else. They are not tangible worlds we can physically encounter. As much as every child of my generation longed for a letter from Hogwarts, or as many decades of children have nervously tapped on the backs of their closets, we always know that the letter will never come and the wardrobe will never open. But when we hold these books in our hands, it gives these imaginings some weight. It literally allows us to hold onto the stories. For a few moments, we are physically and emotionally connected to these characters and worlds. The pages are the parchment of our Hogwarts letter or the branches of the Narnian woods. The book, as an imperfect, physical, changeable object, is a unique conduit between the world we live in and the intangible story worlds we long to visit. 

It's not just about the connection, but also the humanity. Physical books, unlike their digital counterparts, preserve the human imprint on these works- just as books leave their imprints on the humans who read them. A book with an imperfection in it forever preserves some beautiful moment of unique humanity; a digital version would erase the "mistake" with a few lines of code and a quick update. I have copies of Harry Potter books with misprints that I treasure: first editions of Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince with the original text before the famous edits were made; a hardcover first edition of Order of the Phoenix where the embossing is offset from the printed title along the spine. These little things are not flaws in my opinion. Instead, they are warm reminders that real people made these books- something missing from the cool white glow and precise perfection of digital texts.
The page that launched a thousand theories- see the last line.
What print books offer above all else is a sense of history and connection to other humans. As a collector of antique books, there is nothing I love more than finding proof of those who held the book before me. An inscription inside of a Gone With The Wind from the 1930s; a slightly open spine on a oft-revisited page of an 1887 copy of Les Miserables; when I come across these, I am filled with so much joy, as if meeting a friend. I get to have an insight, however tiny, into the life and thoughts of a stranger, and to know that we are sharing something across time. Their hands held the same paper that I hold- and there is something so beautiful about that. 

I took my time when the Peerage was in front of me. I turned the pages carefully and felt the texture of the paper. I read a few of the entries. I heard the paper rustle when I turned to the next page. And yes, I imagined that maybe a real version of Sir Walter Elliot once turned these pages, meticulously noting who was who and feeling a foolish rush of pride at the sight of his own name. Something in his spirit lives in those pages. And it is my privilege to live there too, if only for a few moments.

Photo courtesy Devoney Looser