The Problem With Paper

In the mid 1980s the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship three times — ‘81, ‘84, ‘86 — and my husband kept a copy of every issue of the Boston Globe during those championship series because they were the best written record of his favorite team’s accomplishments. The Boston Globe was a broadsheet daily newspaper printed in ink that blackened your fingers. It was delivered to our door by a paperboy who got paid a few cents for each delivery. My husband kept his Celtics collection, the whole paper, not just the Sports section, in a three-foot tall stack in his studio closet. When we moved from Boston to the farm in 1999, he took the stack with us and put it in the closet of his studio there. In 2014, five years after his death, I put them in the recycling bin at the dump. They were in perfect condition and good for nothing but kindling. Holding on to those papers even when every sentence was available on the internet was his way of capturing time in a bottle, showing loyalty to his tribe, and adulation for his heroes. I discarded them with affection for his ideals. But I have a problem with paper. 

I know paper’s been around for thousands of years, and people really like it, so, who am I to say, but I think paper needs to go. We can make more useful things out of trees and water. Paper is temporary. It decomposes. It’s made to throw away. Also, paper takes up a lot of space, it’s very slow to move, and it weighs a lot, so it sucks up energy. My energy. And yet, I have an emotional attachment to paper. It’s a huge part of my life. Every day I use paper. Even though it seems obsolete and wasteful.

Last week I took 45 lbs. of paper to Office Depot to be shredded to protect my partner and his former customers from identity theft. For decades he stored his business records in boxes and metal file cabinets. So did I. But now we have no physical space to keep all that paper. So, we paid to destroy the paper we saved because now paper is a security risk. I pushed 45 lbs. of paper through a tiny slot in a locked box to be hauled away by a truck to a place where paper made by a machine is cut into little pieces by a machine, then carted away by a machine to a place where it’s mashed by a machine into more paper. This is progress. One step forward, one step back. We used to keep a paper trail of our transactions as proof of our deeds. Now we need to physically destroy our paper trail to keep grifters from laying claim to our assets. Keeping paper used to be self-defense. Now it’s a liability. Maybe it’s a symptom of my age, but sometimes it seems like progress is just a big circle. The technology changes but we keep covering the same ground. 

I first tried to go paperless in 2008 when I took over bookkeeping for our household because my husband was too sick to do it. I switched our accounts from paper-based systems to online banking and digital payment systems. Moving paper from my desk to the mail system to a corporation somewhere seemed absurd when I could accomplish the same task with a few keystrokes on my computer. Today this is a no brainer. My important papers fill one small banker box. And yet I look around my office and I’m still wrapped in paper, a conflicted, imaginative hypocrite.  

I have a spiral notebook and two paper calendars beside my computer. I need that paper to think straight. I have a Christmas card from my aunt and a paper photo from a friend, and shelves of books that define me. Books are paper with angel wings. These days I buy ebooks and read on my phone. I carry my library in my pocket. Paper books are expensive to make and distribute and sell and own and store and discard. I feel the burden of paper books. Evidently, we all do. My local St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop has a used book section as big and neatly laid out and organized as a real bookstore. 

Paper has its own mythology, a physical presence that gives it credibility in minds that have not been subsumed into the digital world. Ebooks need pictures of paper books to sell the digital file. The word “book” brings an image to mind, and we need to see the thing. An ebook is not a thing. An ebook is a virtual book that solves many of the problems of paper. Still, booksellers have to feature pictures of paper books to remind us of what we’re buying when we buy an ebook. No one knows what a virtual book looks like. Paper books fit nicely in human hands. We treasure books as artifacts of our civilization, and we want to own them. Paper books are style and status. No one can see your ebooks. And yet, digital is more accessible, more egalitarian, less expensive, less resource intensive than paper. Literacy does not depend upon paper anymore. Even books must evolve. Ideas are seeds to be planted. Paper, though I love it, is the technology of the past, not the future. 

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2 thoughts on “The Problem With Paper

  1. 1) Tank (‘BCN’s sports guy) – maybe you already know this – took me to a Celtics game back in the day. Way up in the rafters above the court and sat me, I kid you not, next to Johny Most (who was the radio voice that got me into the Celts in the first place). He always had a cigarette in mouth. He tapped the ashes onto the toe of my green Converse high tops. I never washed it off. On St Pats at Doyles, I’d wear the T with his picture on it. Loving that he was Jewish at this so Irish a night.
    2) I stuck in old school holding of a book in lap. I get ’em from the library right across the street. Phone’s too small, I never got a Kindle or an iPad, I love the smell of a book so there ya have it.
    3) Re documents. I do worry that somehow I’ll get hacked (have been once and nearly succumbed to full bank drain like an old gullible fool), and EVERYTHING will be stolen. Ah, modern life.

    1. 1.) I have fond memories of listening to Johnny Most call Celtics games on the radio while we watched the game on TV with the sound turned off.

      2.) Phone is as wide as the column in a newspaper or turned sideways, as wide as a paperback. And size of text can be increased in ebook reader controls. But I know what you mean about holding a book in my hands. It’s a comfort to feel connected.

      3.) Ah, modern life. Yes.

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