For the first-year seminar “Harvard’s Greatest Hits,” David Stern wanted his small group of 21st-century hyperconnected undergraduates to put down their tablets, smartphones, and laptops and to pick up a book.
The idea was simple: Get about a dozen first-year students in a room and have them study some of the rarest and oldest volumes at Houghton Library, Harvard’s vast repository of art, culture, history, and more. “I don’t think they ever imagined how spectacular and rich the physical book could be, and how it really changed their ideas of what a book was or is,” said Stern, Harvard’s Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature and a professor of comparative literature.
Stern, who studies books as material objects, said too often students think “all a book does is convey a text.” But he insists a book’s physical form can impart a range of critical information. The way the words are displayed on the page, the illustrations, even the size of a particular volume, Stern said, can affect a book’s meaning or how it’s interpreted.