"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

In praise of paper

For anyone who’s ever harboured a perverse, semi-intellectual fetish for stationery, there is no substitute for the crisp, clean greeting that is the opening page of a new notebook. 

The touch, the smell of smooth paper, the reassuring firmness of the bound spine, and more than anything, the promise that it holds for immortalising your ideas on the sacred page.

It’s easy to romanticise the humble pen and paper in an age when digital communication is taking over the world. 

There’s no arguing with how computers have propelled productivity - the internet is flooded with an infinite tirade of verbiage.  But is this necessarily a good thing?

Has the craft been diluted by the digital age and its supposed refinement of the process?

In almost succumbing to the lure of the computerised journal, I discovered more reasons to stick with the original medium of communication than to replace it. I could find no better alternative to my trusty notebook. Fundamentally, it’s a matter of quality over quantity – quality of thought, matter, engagement and experience.

Here’s why:

Expression is improved

“As the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated.”  Ted Hughes

The pressure to fill the blank screen and arrest the flicking cursor can lead a writer to brain dump thoughtlessly in a bid to quell the anxiety of starting. There is something dangerous to the ease with which you can type, delete, write, rewrite and insert the descriptors available from the thesaurus open in the tab adjacent to your word document.

There is of course much to be said for such ‘automatic writing’ eventually bringing out the muse. But there’s arguably more to be said for the immediacy of the thought process taking shape as your hand transcribes those carefully considered thoughts on to paper.

As the poet Ted Hughes suggested, the act of handwriting feels much more like an intuitive and imaginative craft than typing.

You learn more

Comprehension is improved when it involves a physical piece of text. Research shows that we learn more when presented with words on a page, partly because it is a more sensory experience – it involves touch, smell, sound as well as vision. On the screen, you’re always surfing, skimming and scouring, whereas with paper, you are directly involved.

In a Norwegian study carried out by the Reading Centre of the University of Stavanger, tenth grade teenagers who were given texts in paper form demonstrated a better understanding of the material than their peers who were given the text in electronic form. Anne Magnan, the lead researcher, concluded this was partly owing to the immediacy of the experience of reading from paper.

Detailing her findings in the Journal of Research in Reading she noted:

“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions – clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads – takes place at a distance from the digital text, which is somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book or the mobile phone. Materiality matters... One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.”

In his article, ‘The Decade Google Made You Stupid’, Douglas Rushkoff similarly suggests that the digital age has made us more superficial. He describes a phenomenon that he calls Internet ADD (attention deficit disorder) – we skim pages, often while doing something else, never slowing down to really contemplate what we are reading, which means we fail to assimilate the detail.

Paper is more personal

Scribbles in a notepad and annotations in your favourite book are easier to trawl and recall than comments on a sanitised PDF. And for those of us who stare at screens all day for a living, moving away from the electronic format to sit in comfort with a book, magazine or newspaper makes for a more restorative and meaningful experience.

In his essay ‘Unpacking my library’, the journalist and novelist Geoff Dyer describes the life affirming pleasure of ordering his books on shelves, because they not only tell the story of his life, they are “the external manifestation” of his very existence; the source of all his inspiration and knowledge.

Imitations always fall short

As best put by Ian Samson, author of ‘Paper: an Elegy’, writing in the New Statesman:

“As we are weighed down with our ever proliferating items of corporatised, licensable digital kit, and become ever more like anthro-info-conduits – walking, talking human slurry pits of undigested data – it is often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. Indeed, paper is still the ancient communication device that all modern communication devices seek, pathetically, to emulate: cheap to make and easy to inscribe; durable, readable, portable, disposable; the screen as the ultimate page.”

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