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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

From Our Bookshelves: The Forest of Wool and Steel

By Courtesy of Joseph P. Kelly
By Larissa G. Barth, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard is a strange place. It’s a rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, with some loops in between. A place where it is hard to be alone and easy to be lonely. It simultaneously creates and challenges your values. It advocates for mental health but works you to the bone.

Some time ago, I read Japanese author Natsu Miyashita’s “The Forest of Wool and Steel,” a novel that follows the young piano tuner Tomura, whose journey is one of self-doubt and setbacks. As a pianist and lover of words, I treasure its tender, poetic prose and imagery; as a Harvard student, I value its remedial guidance for how to maneuver through some of Harvard’s greatest challenges.

“What do you think is the single most important thing for a tuner?” Tomura asks his colleagues towards the end of the book. Their answers — courage, resignation, and perseverance — will guide my reflection on the novel.


In the first few pages, Tomura encounters the piano tuner Itadori by chance when the latter tunes the piano in Tomura’s high school. The “scenery of the sound,” which he connects to the forest of his childhood, immediately enraptures him.

While reading the book, I could not help but connect it to many themes in Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” a novel about spiritual self-discovery. “Seeking means having a goal, but finding means being free, open, having no goal,” says the titular character of Hesse’s novel. Like most of us, Tomura wonders about his purpose and path in life, but what makes him an interesting character is that he is not a seeker, he is a finder. He has the openness and courage to respond to life in whatever way it unfolds, he finds and accepts his calling even though he does not fully understand it — he can’t even play the piano.

Finding your path at Harvard is simultaneously overwhelming and constrained. There are 50 concentrations, 3,700 courses, 450 clubs, and an infinite number of prospective careers to choose from, yet the academic requirements often limit students’ freedom to explore. It is easy to let external factors pressure you into pursuing what you do not truly enjoy — be it following what “everyone else” seems to be doing, what your parents want you to do, or what you think will bring financial stability or status. I studied Government my first year for all three of these reasons before I finally stopped ignoring the adamant voice in my head nudging me toward studying what I truly love: literature.


The common denominator of Harvard’s diverse student body is perhaps the infamous impostor syndrome. Many students here feel like they’re not enough in some sort of way — not as eloquent as that person in section, not as talented as that friend who won international competitions, not involved in enough extracurriculars, not good enough to be at Harvard in general.

Tomura struggles with self-doubt throughout the book: He thinks he lacks both technical skill and inherent talent. Even the piano’s forest metaphor takes an intimidating turn: “Many was the time I felt as though I’d set foot in the forest of my childhood nightmares, the one where if you got lost you’d never find your way back, and sometimes the darkness threatened to overwhelm me.” We all fought to be here, but Harvard can often feel like a suffocating, disorienting forest.

What is most paralyzing about self-doubt is the impression that you can’t do anything about it — you either have talent and intelligence or you don’t. “The Forest of Wool and Steel” opens up a redemptive reconception of the meaning of talent. Rather than being a mystic gift over which we are powerless, the book claims that talent “will out if you really love something. It’s a tenacity, a fight in you that keeps you in the fray no matter what.” Thinking of talent as dedication is not just semantic reframing, it gives one agency and something to hold onto. Though Tomura did not grow up playing the piano, devoted practice and his unwavering love for it slowly but surely transform him into an excellent tuner.

Impostor syndrome feeds on comparison and perfectionism. Giving these up is what Tomura’s colleague means by “resignation.” The Harvard environment, the world of classical music, and capitalist America share their glamorization of hustle culture and competition, the winners of which are measured by external factors like status, awards, connections, and wealth.

Tomura is wary of these conventional ideas of success: “Music is there to help us enjoy life, not as a means to outdo everyone else. Even if you do compete and a winner is picked, “the person who enjoys himself the most is always the real winner.” “The Forest of Wool and Steel” convinces one that it is time to redefine what success and “being enough” means to you. For Tomura, it is the quiet joy in music. For me, it is inner peace.


As said, Tomura becomes an excellent piano tuner by the end of the novel. Yet getting there was “a tremendous, dizzying amount of slow and steady,” he thinks. All I have learned and shared here — letting go of perfectionism, comparison, and other people’s ideas of success — is far easier said than done. It is also not a linear process — perseverance means expecting and accepting setbacks. One day, you may sit on the couch with friends and think how perfectly happy you are. Another day, you may leave Lamont Library at 3 a.m. and realize you’ve fallen back into prioritizing work over health. What’s important is that you keep trying.


Lastly, to Tomura’s question, I would like to add my own answer: “compassion.” It is easy to be cynical, judgmental, and impatient towards yourself and others. Compassion means celebrating that person who got the internship you didn’t, it means giving yourself breaks and spontaneously going to the movies even though you have a paper due. It means realizing that healing is a forest we are all wandering through side by side, even though the darkness sometimes makes that hard to see.

—Staff writer Larissa G. Barth can be reached at

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