What Really Matters

NOTE: This post was originally written in March of 2012.

At this point most of us have seen numerous news reports about the tornadoes that devastated small towns in several states over the past week. A number of people were killed, and many families lost everything in a matter of moments.

It got me thinking about a recurring theme I have noticed in many books and films: characters realizing what they truly treasure in life. Why do we value the things we value? Certainly what we should value most of all is our lives, and I think this point has been suitably addressed through the recent interviews and commentary on this string of tragedies.

I am interested in what makes us value things. I remember seeing a movie recently in which the main character was asked what she would take with her if her house were on fire. I thought it was an interesting question, and it was fascinating to see how it played out as the film progressed.

For many the answer would be ‘valuables’, meaning jewelry, laptops – things it would be expensive to replace. For the more romantic among us, the items chosen would be mementos, some seemingly worthless, but that it would be impossible to replace.

I am most certainly in the latter camp, and what’s more, my career seems to be based on this very tendency — I preserve the ephemeral, nostalgic, and eternally charming objects of the literary world. This feeds into a larger context, which is the current debate over digital versus print media.

For the longest time I believed that my resistance to the trend of e-books and their ilk was due to my particular stubbornness. While that may yet prove true, I think that sense of value is a larger factor. Books, and of course many other objects that we generally view as the accumulated clutter of life, often hold value for me not because of the text they contain, but because they have been assimilated as part of my existence.

I remember reading The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin for the first time in tenth grade. I still have the copy I read, a rather unspectacular paperback volume published by Quality Paperback Book Club, which included this story and several others. I made these a topic of an English paper I was assigned, and because of this underlined the text extensively (horror of horrors!). I remember reading it again recently, and being struck by which passages I had singled out. Some seemed chosen for rather juvenile reasons (don’t we all sometimes feel a bit foolish at what we used to say and think?); others seemed incredibly astute (was I really open to that sort of insight at 16?).

What does the internet say this book is worth? Between $6 and $10. Probably closer to $6 in this condition. The Kindle edition is $7.99, the same price as a new paperback.

So why do I value my copy so much more highly? Were I to have a Kindle, why would my tendency be to save this worn paperback before grabbing the Kindle? Those who know how the Kindle works will respond: “Well, simple, you can just get a new Kindle and re-download all the books you’ve purchased. They keep records of that.” Sure, that’s great, very convenient, and much less tragic than if my personal library were to go up in flames.

But this is why I don’t value digital content at all. I don’t need to. Someone else is doing that for me so I don’t have to worry. Everything is replaceable at no cost to me. Here you go, sir, good as new. Can you imagine how you would treat your favorite books if that were the case? Or, for that matter, your car? Your house? Your family? Yourself?

The reason things are valuable to us is because they can be damaged or destroyed, lost, stolen, etc. The things we treasure are the things that can be taken away forever. Sure, we worry about losing those things, but isn’t worry just another word for love? Is that something we want to give up?

If the modern world’s solution to the anxiety of loss is for me to surround myself with things it is by definition impossible to value, I think I’ll take the road less traveled. And it will make all the difference.

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