We’re living in a pre-barbaric age. Gutenberg and the printed word cast out the darkness of a hundred mistakes, a thousand benighted cities hastened from the gloom, a million lights winked on in a million windows. The word, once hidden in the chests of the mind, was now scratched onto paper and carefully typeset into folios. The barbarians were cast out, fleeing ahead of the coming enlightenment.
And now we’re in a pre-barbaric age, when the printed word will no longer hold sway. This evening I took a catalog of the things I still buy in paper and why. It’s a short list, but illustrative.
I still get the New York Times. I stopped reading the Wall Street Journal in paper form a while ago. I don’t even take free papers on airplanes or the USA Today that gets tossed like an accident outside of hotel rooms. The Times, in paper, is rich and thick and some sections are more luxurious than others. There’s nothing quite like skimming the Times. The app, I’ve found doesn’t match that sense of discovery. I know I’ll probably cancel my subscription soon enough. I hate getting rid of all that paper.
I buy comics. My kids read comics. I bought them a box full of Archie, whose ’50s idioms juxtaposed with some Borscht-belt gag writer’s idea of comedy still tickle my son’s funny bone. I have all my old MAD Magazines and he read them all. I have a complete set of early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We read those, too. Comics still have power over adults and kids alike. Comics aren’t reading, really. They’re a dream where the world is a little different and thoughts are easy to read.
I also buy comics because I see that they can be so easily pirated. There is demand for them online and the authors and artists who make them see little of that revenue. I get a few new comics digitally – I’ve recently been reading Animal Man – but all the Walking Deads I’ve picked up have been in paper form. I buy comics on a whim. I buy comics and leave them somewhere, unread. I barely have time, but I feel I owe it to the industry. They taught my son to read and my daughter is following him. MAD magazine taught my kids to laugh at the oddest stuff. It’s just not the same digitally – at least not yet. It will be, soon.
I buy graphic novels, as well. I love them. They’re so rich, so much more visceral than a plain old novel. Do me a favor and buy all of Guy Delisle’s books. Buy The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Buy the Parker novels retold by Darwyn Cooke. They are beautiful artifacts, beautifully drawn, delicately wrought. If there is any reason for the printed page to exist, these are it.
Sometimes I’ll buy a normal book in paper form. I’m not sure why. I bought Steve Earle’s book. Didn’t read it. I have a huge tome about Robert Moses on my bedside bookshelf. It was too heavy to really dig into in bed. It wasn’t available in ebook. It’s a frustrating exercise at this point. Why do I have to lug this thing around with me on the subway when I have so many more books on my Kindle? So I don’t.
I don’t read paper magazines anymore. I bring the New Yorker, in paper form, with me if I’m traveling somewhere. They won’t let me cancel my paper subscription and just buy a digital one. But I don’t mind it. There’s a window of time between take-off and hitting altitude that I need something on paper to read. Thumbing through the latest New Yorker calms me down a bit. Sometimes I’ll buy a GQ or Esquire, but they’re too bulky to carry very far. They usually end up in the plane seat pocket. I feel like I’m passing them on to other passengers.
I print out things, sometimes. Sometimes I just want my itinerary on paper so I can stuff it in my pocket. Usually the paper just ends up jammed into a jacket at some point and I fish it out a few weeks later, feeling like I’ve found something important that is now in tatters. I stopped editing on paper. It made no sense.
In the end, we’re going to forget paper. It’s a sad thing, but true. There’s a certain way you look at the world when your knowledge is mediated by paper. I feel like you think more slowly and with a bit more care. There’s another way you look at it when your knowledge is mediated by pixels. You don’t worry as much. You know the next answer is right around the corner.
I think the brain changes. No one is quite sure how, yet, but there’s something in us that sees talismans in the written word. Give us a few generations and those talismans will be gone, replaced by butterfly-wing-thin screens and an endless world of content. That word, content, is enough to give a book lover chills. But it’s what’s next.
We’re in a pre-barbaric age. It’s time we remembered what was important to us, and what we’re going to lose when we come out, blinking and confused, into a new world.