Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Most of what I know of books I’ve learned from my mom. Like her father before her, she’s been a librarian my whole life, caring for books, doctoring their wounds, shelving them again and again, and always seeking to put just the right book in just the right hands. She raised children born with the words of novels already ringing in their ears, and when we were young, she taught us that money was to be spent sparingly, unless we were buying books. My siblings and I were always allowed to take home as many as we wanted, as long as we promised that we would read them. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t always keep that promise, foreshadowing my eventual fate of owning more books than I could ever hope to read.
My mom doesn’t buy me books much anymore; the ones she does pick up, she finds in thrift stores for pennies on the dollar. She keeps her eye out for books that might be useful to me as a graduate student in political theory and brings them to me when she comes to visit. Prior to her lastmost visit, she perused a box of books labeled “FREE,” and sent me pictures of a few – Ten Greek Plays in Contemporary Translations, T.H. Marshall’s Class, Citizenship, and Social Development, and Classics in Western Thought. “Do you want any of these?” she texted me. “They’re free.” Sure, I said. They could be useful, and the next phase for a book after “FREE” is almost certainly “TRASH.” I could do something more with these books than the landfill could. Mom tucked the books into her purse and delivered them to me shortly after.
The books sat on my desk for a week or so, and in time I grew tired of my cluttered workspace and decided to shelve them. Examining them for the first time, I flipped through each book before putting tucking them into their respective spots, alphabetically by author. Classics in Western Thought was the final book I shelved. I opened the front cover, ignoring some scrawls from the previous owner in search of publication details. It was an anthology, published in 1964 and edited by Charles Hirschfeld. Opening to the table of contents, I found that the book was a collection of excerpts from the most important modern thinkers, from Bacon to Tocqueville to Dostoyevsky. It was a great find – extraordinarily useful for someone in my field of study. Mom’s keen librarian’s eye triumphed again. I thumbed through the book, searching for the Dostoyevsky section – in particular, hoping to read the “Grand Inquisitor” scene from The Brothers Karamazov, which the table of contents promised – and suddenly I found something altogether unexpected.
Tucked between the pages of the Dostoyevsky section were three lined pieces of notebook paper and a half-sheet of printer paper, all folded together. I unfolded them, examining first the sheets of notebook paper. They were three-hole-punched, like typical college-ruled notebook paper, but much smaller than the notebook paper to which I am accustomed. The papers boasted lovely, even cursive handwriting in maroon-red ink; the written words were so comely in their appearance that they demanded to be read. And as I did, I found that on these three sheets of notebook paper was a draft of a paper on Condorcet, and in particular the differences between the thought of Condorcet and the thought of Burke. The unknown author with the red cursive handwriting had done an excellent job of sketching out the two thinkers’ varying views on natural rights, and, imagining her to be one of my own undergrad students, I thought she must have been very much on her way to an “A.” Delighted and amused with this unexpected discovery, I flipped the final sheet of notebook paper to the back of the stack, examining the half-sheet of printer paper for the first time. Except, it wasn’t a sheet of printer paper. It was a flyer for a student recital at the Michigan State Department of Music for May 19th, 1966. Digital printers wouldn’t be invented for another two years. The unknown student with the red cursive handwriting had drafted her essay on Condorcet over fifty years before I held her textbook in my hands. Taken aback and with a sudden new purpose, I hurried to open the front cover of the book again. There, written in the same, even cursive hand, but this time in blue ink, I found my unknown student. Her name was Lorraine Nelson. Her address put her near the banks of the Red Cedar and further confirmed the evidence on the recital flyer that she had studied at Michigan State University over fifty years ago.
In that moment and in many moments since, Lorraine Nelson has held a peculiar grasp on my imagination. She was at once instantly accessible and unendingly mysterious. I grew up near Michigan State, and I can imagine Lorraine walking the familiar streets of campus with this book in her bookbag. I can imagine her dressed in the plaid wool and headbands popular in fashion at that time, trends that I sometimes try to mimic myself. I can imagine her crouched over a small dormitory desk, reading the Condorcet section of Classics in Western Thought and trying to make sense of it. I can imagine one of her fellow students handing her a flyer for his recital, scheduled for May 19th, and inviting her to come. What I found between the pages of this book, destined for the landfill until my mother rescued it for me, freezes in time one day in the life of a college student who seemed to be not so different from me. It is evidence that Lorraine Nelson lived, and thought, and learned, and had ideas about some of the same things that inspire me. At the very least, I can say that Lorraine Nelson read some of the great thinkers of the Western canon, that she understood Condorcet quite well. She left me evidence of her consequence, evidence I felt in my gut as I held her fifty-year-old draft and traced the lines of her maroon-red handwriting with my eyes. I don’t know what happened to Lorraine Nelson after she wrote her draft on Condorcet. Perhaps she went on to become a teacher, a mother, or a nuclear physicist. Perhaps she lived all her life in Michigan, or perhaps she left. All I have is a moment of her life, but I am honored to guard it, to remember her, and to be a part of some strange lineage that ties us together. Lorraine Nelson and I are bound together by this 1964 copy of Classics in Western Thought and the ideas it contains. It is an inheritance – physical evidence of something intangible handed down from Lorraine to me.
Among other things, this discovery stands as a reminder of what we gain by owning, borrowing, and reading printed books. To find fifty-year-old relics tucked in between pages, there must be pages. Straightforwardly, I will admit that I do own a Kindle. I’ve purchased the digital versions of textbooks and even sought a few PDF editions from my university’s library. I am a graduate student – of anyone, certainly I can understand the usefulness of easily accessible information. With digital books, everyone everywhere can have immediate access to the same thoughts and ideas instantaneously. Once obtained, these books can be filed away onto paper-thin devices that can hold hundreds of thousands of tomes at once, or onto orderly hard drives with terabytes worth of storage. Digital libraries are often neater and cheaper than physical libraries. But it is in this same infinite reproducibility and convenient storage that the tragedy of digital books lies. The nature of digital books is such that we are much less likely to share them or pass them on when we are done with them. A book read long ago commands little notice on a laptop, tucked away into a forgotten folder and resigned to the dustbins of our memories. A physical book, on the other hand, takes up space in our world and therefore in our minds. Instead of languishing on a device, even unwanted physical books can be loaned out, given away, or set in a box somewhere marked “FREE” for a librarian to find for her daughter. But it is not only in our passing on of books that the physical far surpasses the digital.
Physical books, unlike their digital counterparts, age. They show signs of past lives and carry the imprints of the things they’ve experienced. They retain fractional memories of the people who have held them, read them, dog-eared them, and perhaps even dropped them in the bathtub once. To buy a used book with hand-scrawled marginalia and crooked highlighter is to become part of its history – a history unavoidably shrouded in the unknown but somehow also tangible and familiar. For all our differences, we read all English left to right. When we open the pages of used books and see the evidence of their former owners, it’s hard not to imagine some other head once bowed over the very same words, or a pinky and a thumb holding open the same passages now spread before us. Old books are full of reminders that we are not the first to encounter their stories and ideas. And, like those who have owned them before us, physical books allow us the opportunity to add something to the text, to leave our own imprint on the pages. In digital books, our marginalia is only and ever for us. No one will ever see our typewritten notes without knowing our passwords, and one day the device surely will be too old to update and cease to function. Our thoughts on Rousseau’s Confessions and Gone Girl and Paradise Lost will fall into the abyss. But when we take a pen or highlighter to our physical books, there’s always the chance that these notes are not only for us, but for whoever picks up the book next. Perhaps your notes on the Nicomachean Ethics will help some budding philosopher start to understand eudaimonia. Perhaps your sly comment in the closing pages of Pride and Prejudice will make a precocious preteen laugh. Perhaps your drafted essay on Condorcet, tucked idly into the pages of your textbook, will send a grad student to her computer to write about her discovery.
Between the pages of physical books, we find reminders that we are not alone in history. We are not unprecedented; we are not new. We are something much better – a part of the warm and deeply familiar story of human life. We have much to learn from the past, and much to offer the future. When we hold used books in our hands, we are in context.