The War against Paper - March 25, 2013

Way back in the halcyon ’70s, when I decided to give up doing the one thing I liked and was good at, namely, editing, in favor of something I did not know I would like but was pretty certain I would never know whether I was any good at it, namely, publishing . . . I met a very smart fellow who ran the Rare Book Room at the University of Notre Dame’s Main Library. He wanted to help a fledgling, aspiring book publisher with some first-class wisdom, which was to realize right away that the book as we know it was dead, that the move away from the formats we experienced would continue, first with the abandonment of clothbound books for paperbound, then with the abandonment of paper for the new technology. I asked him what that technology was, and he spoke to me in soft tones, as though letting me in on the greatest tip in publishing, the one that would put me ahead of all the struggling publishers everywhere . . . the legion of the smart-and-poor . . . so that I could be among the leaders of the coming Zeitgeist. The secret was . . . microfilm!

Glad I didn’t bet the farm on that. Since that time, there have been many formats touted to replace the book. The array of replacements are themselves legion, whether they be new “things” like computer screens or e-books or audio-books, or whether they be some sort of automatic imputing into our brains, there seems to be no loss for new ideas. Like the women in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Few of these ideas last a season, and still the paper persists, while all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty dearth.

The purpose (maybe I should say “excuse”) of the new formats, I think, started with the idea that they would be more permanent than paper, but now the purpose is to be more efficient, and by that I mean to take on Olympian ideal: faster, higher, stronger. Knowledge or enlightenment or entertainment (it started with the first but has ended with the last) would just come to us, perhaps come upon us, like a cloud of knowing, painlessly enriching our lives without effort.

The problem is that we seem to be getting more knowledgeable at the same time as we are getting less wise. The data is forever “proving” that our youth are overflowing with . . . well, data. Too bad they haven’t the foggiest notion of what purpose is all about. Faster, higher, stronger may be a model for an athlete, but perhaps not a scholar.

Recently, the war against paper has changed from an argument for saving time and effort derived from a non-paper transmission of knowledge into an argument abjuring self-help in order to save the  planet. This has the advantage of looking for results in happier and more productive polar bears rather than wiser and more productive people.

But the failure of man is everywhere evident. Arafat and Chavez both squirreled away billions of dollars, which could have been a good lesson in hypocrisy if only their minions would recognize it. Take Al Gore . . . please. He preaches the Gospel of Green, even buying green credits so that he could avoid his own sermons about the profligacy of carbon use. That didn’t make him a genius; that made him a hypocrite. What made him a genius was that the company he bought the credits from was his own.

The war against paper will likely branch out and have other iterations in the future. And the few people I have met who speak up in favor of paper do so because books offer a beauty and serenity and permanence (yes, permanence; all scholarly books are printed in acid-free paper, meant to last a minimum of 100 years) and, if we are lucky, truth.

The publisher supplies the good, the author the true, and the book itself, printed on sensuous paper, the beautiful. As the inimitable Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”