The power of the written word on actual paper

At any given time, there are about 20 people, men and women both, riding solo around the world on a motorcycle. These intrepid travelers sell all their possessions, try hard to get corporate sponsorship, and then set out on the adventure of a lifetime.

Most of these trips take several years to complete and include all kinds of weather, corruption at borders, illness, and sometimes even kidnapping or violence. To offset these downsides, there is universal compassion for the weary traveler, where the kindness of strangers can build renewed confidence in the overall goodness of humanity.

When they get back home, they often write books and go on speaking tours. It’s nice work if you can: A, get it, and B, survive it.

I’ve read several books by ’round-the-world motorcycle travelers (Glen Heggstad, Ted Simon, and Helge Pedersen are some famous authors in this genre, and there are many more). In one book, the rider found himself in a village deep in Africa. There, an older woman begged him for a book, any book, because she wanted to learn to read and speak English.

He gestured to her as best he could that he didn’t have any books. She persisted, begging him for anything just so she could see some written English. He wound up giving her the instruction manual that came with his helmet. She reacted as if she had won the lottery. That, my friends, is the power of the written word on actual, hold-in-your-hand paper.

To me, the written word is what separates us from all the other animals. Reading and writing let us do all the great things that come only when we work together. Having access to so many great minds from the past truly has been a boon for society.

Thanks to the internet, much of this “content” is now available at the click of a button. While that in and of itself is truly amazing, good old hard copy is not dead yet.

These days, many people start their days by going to a website for the latest news. Not me. I use the web as much as anybody, but I still want an actual newspaper, like this one, in my hot little hands when I really want to understand what’s going on.

Pixels on a screen are too ephemeral for me; I need ink on paper when I’m serious about understanding the big picture. Libraries, one of the greatest inventions of humanity, are a big part of this.

Let’s put it this way: When I have a day off and the weather is decent, I can ride on my motorcycle to the Guilderland Public Library and take out a book. Then I can ride one hundred miles up Route 30, where I’ll find the perfect tree in the beautiful Adirondack Park and sit by the water.

At that point, I don’t need wi-fi or a login and password, or a good battery charge. I can just open the book and be transported to whatever place or time the author chooses to take me. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow — not that I even play very often, but still — I’d do exactly this same trip, as often as I could. There is nothing better.

There are three services the Guilderland library offers to support the sharing of the written word that you might not be aware of. Check with your library; it probably has them as well.

These are all great things that anyone who loves to read and think and share ideas would love. These three things are used book donations, the used magazine exchange, and the Little Free Library. Let’s go through them one at a time.

Most libraries are not accepting donations at this time due to COVID restrictions. However, they often provide third-party donation boxes. In Guilderland, we have boxes from, a company out of Rotterdam, New York, that tries to find good homes for old books.

If you are a baby boomer like me, you might be downsizing your own or your parents;’ houses. There will no doubt be tons of old books lying around. Dropping your books into these bins is much, much better than throwing them out. Think of the old lady in Africa; if they even re-purpose one book for someone like her, the whole program is worth it.

Then there is the magazine exchange. I love magazines and always will, but it gets to a point where you simply don’t have the time, money, and storage space to get all the ones you’d like. Enter the magazine exchange, which is a totally terrific idea.

I read my copy of The New Yorker, drop it off at the magazine exchange at the library, and then pick up a different magazine, like The Economist. How great is that? Again, much better than throwing them out.

Speaking of The Economist, which is a fantastic magazine: When I get lucky and find a used copy of it at the magazine exchange at the Guilderland library, there are always key passages underlined in many of the articles.

The thing is, whoever is doing it has a different idea of what passages I would have considered to be the key passages. So it’s like I’m playing a mental game with a stranger every time I score a copy of The Economist. Great fun.

Finally, there is the Little Free Library. The one at Guilderland can be hard to find at times. Due to all the construction there, like the game whack-a-mole, it pops up in different places. But keeping an eye out for the Little Free Library is worth it.

It’s just a little box on a pole where random books are dropped off and taken out by the general public. When the library was closed for months due to both construction and COVID, the Little free Library was my lifeline. I read at least one book a week, and I discovered many new authors.

What’s very interesting about the Little Free Library is this: It’s never completely full or completely empty. Like a “closed system” in science, it just seems to maintain its equilibrium all year long. That’s just great.

The written word on actual paper is not dead yet. Far from it. Rather, it’s alive and well in this and other great newspapers and good old books and magazines that are still prized and desired all over the world.

Long live the written word that can actually be held in your own hands, an old but still tremendously valuable technology. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to catch up on my reading.