A World Without Paper

I’ve certainly made strides in my personal life to consume less and recycle more. But lately — in complete opposition to the elation I feel seeing gas-guzzling SUVs replaced by energy efficient cars — a strange sadness creeps into my heart when I think a

Jun 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I’m as down as the next gal with going green. I realize that we can’t keep treating the planet like a wastebasket, and I’ve certainly made strides in my personal life to consume less and recycle more.

But lately — in complete opposition to the elation I feel seeing gas-guzzling SUVs replaced by energy efficient cars — a strange sadness creeps into my heart when I think about a world without paper.

If you’re purposely reading this in print, you know where I’m headed.

While there’s plenty of enjoyment in sitting down to a cold beer and a warm laptop, there’s really nothing that can replace the sensation of opening my copy of the paper, or the singular satisfaction that accompanies the sound a book makes when its spine cracks for the first time.

It’s something small enough that I never stopped to wonder how I’d feel without it until I started getting those e-mails that close with the caution, “Please consider the environment before printing.”

In grade school, I had a great teacher who repurposed old shipping barrels as “reading centers.” She painted them in bright colors, outfitted them with throw pillows and carved a hole in each one just wide enough for an 8-year-old to wiggle through. I spent a lot of happy hours camped out in there with a copy of Amelia Bedelia or Where the Wild Things Are.

After school, my sisters and I would walk across the street to the Kenton County Public Library. That place was a castle to me — still is. All cobblestone and winding staircases.

On rare visits these days, I let the smell of all that paper take me right back to when my mother would send us up to the children’s floor to do Mad Libs while she met with her college study group.

When I was 11, I got a copy of The Ghost at Dawn’s House for my birthday. I folded it inside my church hymnal and read while my dad preached at the pulpit. I even tore the mail-in form from the back of the book and became a card-carrying member of the Babysitters’ Club.

That summer, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in four hours, sitting outside on our stubbornly listing back deck. That first classic was set to the sounds of a buzzing lawnmower and Pearl Jam’s Ten. To this day, I can’t separate the lyrics to “Evenflow” from the image of a girl brushing her hair on a fire escape.

I was working for CityBeat when my own writing appeared in something other than the school newspaper. I tried to play it cool around the prolific staff writers who would have laughed if they’d seen me carefully cutting that first 250-word band preview out of the paper and affixing it to the wall of my cubicle.

I felt like a Rock star, imagining the thousands of people who would most certainly read my blurb and know my name. Compound ed with a staggering $18,000 yearly salary, it’s a wonder my swelling head didn’t topple me right out of the desk chair.

I watch proudly now as the paper establishes a competitive Web presence, but I secretly still need the dwindling weight of the print version in my hands each Wednesday before I can truly appreciate the content. It’s a hang-up, maybe, but one that I’m in no great hurry to be rid of.

We should be glad, I guess, that advancing technology makes it possible to access the entire written catalog without expending more than a moment’s energy. But I wonder: Can a kid in this day and age feel inspired to read Austen or Poe in the same format they use to post comments on their friends’ MySpace pages?

At the risk of sounding hideously whimsical, I like to believe that the aesthetic of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the temporary nature of dried ink lend as much to the experience as the words on the page.

Indeed, a printed work is often so much more than its message. My back issues of Smithsonian, for example, have decoupaged every decoupageable thing in my house. And my college textbooks are extremely handy for propping windows open. But their meaning goes deeper; the thought of tossing out anything that I’ve read cover-to-cover is weirdly depressing. In doing so, I feel like I’d be losing a thousand memories and hand-written notes to myself right along with them.

I once wandered aimlessly through Scotland with a nagging heartache and a worn copy of Love in the Time of Cholera that I referenced almost daily to remind myself that desire isn’t useless.

Misguided and dramatic as my self-therapy might have been, I’m adamantly sure that I wouldn’t have healed as completely if I’d had to boot up or log on every time I needed to reference a passage that moved me. In a given fight, and even with a soft cover, a book can be just the weapon.

It will be a long time before the world is entirely paperless. I suppose one day generations will look back on their predecessors with the same baffled fondness that we reserve for cave painters and PC users. Perhaps future historians will conduct full-scale research to find out why their tree-killing ancestors looked so damn content reading the news with their coffee.

In the meantime, while I work to shed my need for these tactile comforts, I’ll guiltily sneak the occasional celebrity gossip rag or print things out unnecessarily when onscreen viewing fails to satisfy.

I might even jot down a grocery list or two rather than sending it to my phone … but I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum.

CONTACT HANNAH ROBERTS: [email protected]