The Comfort in Tangibility

Finding comfort in holding an experience in your hands

by Aaron Falls / Garnet & Black

We have all unintentionally begun living a minimalistic lifestyle. Games don’t need their own cabinet anymore – they don’t need the pieces, the box or even the board. Music is floating down the digital stream instead of swirling on shining black mountain ridges. Thousands of moments and memories are available to relive with just a few taps, and your best friend from across the world is right in your pocket alongside your mom, your roommate across the hall and that random kid from freshman year biology. Friendships, work, relationships and even fights are all tediously recorded in the online interactive museum of almost every significant moment of your memory. It's been this way since you opened that little white box in 2014 and decided to pour your life into its somewhat unlimited storage. 

 We have almost everything we need wrapped up in convenience, connectivity and the best communication the world has seen to date. It is quite literally in the palm of our hands. The future is now, and it is all in one place. 

 So why do we fawn over the presence of a polaroid camera when you only get one tiny, grainy, washed-out copy that you can’t even upload to Instagram? The way a generation nursed unhindered by iTunes collect vinyl to hear a sound from a needle rather than their Air Pods? Why do our hearts burst with joy at seeing our name on a letter or on the damaged label of a brown paper package? Why does the scent escaping a brand-new book as the spine wears under our hands make the corners of our mouth turn up the way it does?

 I don’t think it’s because we are trying to be “cool” and “retro” by using the inconvenient versions of what technology simplified for us. In a world where so much of our lives are on our phones and laptops, we don’t have as much mental devotion to give to the objects in them. The physical items that we do keep around and seek out are special. They mean something. We expend our remaining mental energy on that inconvenience for a reason.

 There is comfort in tangibility. A connectedness that comes from a physical object that we don’t really need but choose to keep around. To twirl a record between your fingers is to hold that music in your hands - it has a body and makes music on your phone feel like a phantom that disappears as soon as you close the app, like it had never existed at all. I have no idea how it works, but I don’t really care. It’s like the magic of snapping the polaroid camera at a crowd and seeing off-guard faces slowly fade in to fill the white square frame. Faces in a moment frozen forever, and the moment is in your hands alone – the most unique thing in the world. And giving a copy to someone? They mean more to you than even that moment does. A polaroid doesn’t get tossed just to anyone or anywhere; they get tucked into your best friend’s driver side visor or in the back of a scratched phone case. They make their home in that little drawer of ‘important’ things that we all seem to have. A bad quality photo is a high-quality gift. Throwing away a polaroid is throwing away the tangible memory that someone gave to you to keep forever. 

 Holding a handwritten note is the closest you can get to grasping a voice in your hands. Someone spent their time staring at a piece of paper – whether it’s a wrinkled scrap or sealed up in an envelope – with a pen in their hand and decided that what they had to say should be in their handwriting with the words straight from their heart pouring out the tips of their fingers. A note is direct. It’s an accidental secret that the internet doesn’t know about – a secret shared between you, them, the paper and the pen. Keep it safe, and those words might just outlive you. The feelings live in those pencil scratches. A handwritten note is preserving your feelings in paper – not glass – towards an emotion right then. Sure, you could burn it and turn those words into ashes, or you could tuck them into that drawer of important things to break out fifty years later just to smile. 

“I keep mine because I am scared of losing someone,” Madison Jones, a self-proclaimed hoarder of her gifted notes, admits, “and that being one of the only things I have left that they gave me.” A scrap of paper torn from the corner of a notebook means nothing; that same paper with words from the hand of someone you love, or someone gone, is treasure. 

 Finding that handwriting in another place – such as the inside cover of a book – makes something ordinary into a marked connection between one person and another. In 2018, my mother gave me a copy of Jonathon Livingston Seagull with an inscription from 2008 – yes, ten years prior – saying how she knew this book was meant for me right then and there. A decade later, from eight to eighteen, she was right. My most beloved gift is a time-capsule from the woman who raised me to be exactly who I was. Reading it only proved to me that her lessons preserved that same heart and identity she saw when she wrote the inscription when I was so much smaller. 

But books don’t need an inscription to be worthy of taking up physical space. To hold a book is to hold a story in your hands – a life, an army, the love between two people, the grief of losing someone who you have never and will never meet. A whole world that burst from someone’s mind came together under their cramping hands that they scribbled down as fast as they could. Books on a shelf are universes stacked beside each other – completely oblivious to the existence of the others and the reality that they were born into. But we can’t all house a full library of worlds, pain, and love – some stay by our sides forever, and others we pass along. 

“If it’s a meaningful book from my childhood or a story that particularly resonated with me for some reason, I’ll keep it for myself,” explained Emma Dooling, a fellow student proud of her shelf. “I resell all the others to a bookstore to give someone else the chance to hear the stories, too.” 

With a Kindle or an iPad, there is that intangible space to carry an infinite library in your bookbag. But just like the music on your phone, if the battery dies, the abrupt door of the limits of technology slams in your face. With a book between your hands, the only thing that might slam in your face is that one ‘last’ chapter at 3:30 AM when your nose hits the page after dozing off. Books are a door to another world, and I don’t like the idea of technology standing between that door and me. I’ll trade convenience for the extra weight in my bag every time. 

 We don’t have a lot of space. Not in our tiny apartments, and not in our busy schedules. As college kids, we don’t have a lot of money to spend on tangibility, either. We care about experiences rather than objects, and that’s my favorite theory on why we hold to these physical inconveniences so dearly – the experience that a book or a record gives makes that world or that sound seem more real. Living in the moment is hard when you want to remember every single one, and our camera roll doesn’t seem like a special enough place to trap those feelings. A note or a polaroid freezes a moment that time will never be able to give back to us. Physical objects are a truth that you can touch and never be able to deny. They embody that our conveniences didn’t just spawn when the first iPhone came out of the box. They are a connection to foreign worlds written and your own world in moments past. Our most precious objects are fossils of our creative existence. They are proof that we were here, we did love, we felt hurt, and most importantly, we lived. 

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