President’s Column

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On Paper

In light upon the figured leaf

You paper glutton. Your screen, like a grieving conscience, keeps pressuring you to go paperless. It chivvies you with charts. It cites damnable statistics. You had the “third highest paper usage” in your department. Bad, bad, bad.

Why resist the inevitable? Because, we say, paper is indispensable to the art of writing. We are grateful, to be sure, for the rise of e-journals, and for the access that the internet provides. But to compose a piece of fine writing—examples of which await you in this new issue of Literary Matters—authors require paper.

When it comes to prose, a screen cannot do justice to the sequencing of paragraphs in a long essay. We’ve all had the experience of having to move paragraphs around. When we’re sweating to knock out a first draft, we sometimes jumble our arrangement of materials. To improve our work, we need to see the full arc. A screen won’t free a writer to swap out paragraph seven and paragraph eleven. It won’t foster what we literary geeks call a synchronic (as opposed to a diachronic) experience of writing. The pages that make up a unified essay do not stand in the same relation as the parts to the whole, but they approximate that relation.

Longer poems require much the same approach to editing and revision. It may be argued that shorter poems, say, a sonnet as opposed to a sonnet-sequence, can gestate on a screen. Fine, so long as you track your changes in case you want to consult an earlier choice. If you happen to be a genius, please save your changes for posterity. If you’re arranging a book of poems for publication, having sheets of printed paper will help you discover the best order.

It’s more than easy to be distracted when writing on a computer. It’s like writing at the top of a slide, seated on the edge of the slippery part. You’re always just a twitch of the buttocks away from watching Weird Al videos, shopping on amazon, or reading what highly informed journalists have to say on the great issues of the day. It’s painful to pull away from all that. It’s practically detox. But writing on paper is a means of restoring one’s powers of concentration. It’s just you and your mind. If that isn’t always a pleasing prospect, neither is a healthy diet or an hour in the gym.

We err to think of digital writing software as more than a quick fix. Schoolchildren used to learn to write by reading great literature. In 1950, my late mother was attending Thomas Aquinas High School in the Bronx, where she absorbed the language of that notorious heretic John Milton. Latin and the Bible were standard fare across the country. Serious literacy was a good that people wanted. It was a key to rising in the world. In 2020, if their parents have the means, schoolchildren can learn to rely on writing apps, for example, Grammarly, Textio, ProWritingAid, and Hemingway Editor. It appears to some enthusiasts that grammatical errors, syntactical problems, poor word choices—even political insensitivities—will recede into the papery past, never to trouble us again. Like folly and old age.

Colleges and universities are eager to go paperless. I suspect you have encountered language like the following, designed to further ensure that everyone spends as much time online as possible. It comes from a tech-honeycombed campus in the Midwest, courtesy of a poet friend of mine: “Given the environmental effects of the usage of paper and ink (especially for inkjet printers), we encourage faculty to go paperless as much as possible. Commenting on student essays, for example, could be accomplished through the comments features of Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Adobe products. Faculty members who wish to write comments by hand might consider using a tablet and stylus.” My friend added that her students, guinea pigs in this new paperless culture, were skimming most of their texts on the internet, with predictable results in her Intro to Poetry class.

It seems we are to have jet planes, but not paper planes. We are to have Oracle, but not origami. It takes some digging around to find the information, but you won’t be too surprised to learn that computers are an environmental hazard. Not only do they suck up vast amounts of electricity when we use them, but they waste vast amounts of energy when we don’t turn them off. Their manufacture requires no end of fossil fuel. They’re the epitome of built-in obsolescence, and when they’re outmoded or broken, we stick them in landfills, where their heavy metals and toxic chemicals leach into the local groundwater.

The moral of the story? Let’s think twice before we completely digitize the ancient art of writing. Paper is indispensable to writing well. Given the environmental costs, we ought to use paper responsibly. We’re all mired in considerations of economy and scale, in a flawed system that can at times dwarf our individual perspectives. But insofar as paper fosters serious writing and long-term thinking, it’s a medium with a good message.