The Weight of Paper

Nanny, my grandmother on my mother’s side, was born in 1881 and grew up before the automobile, airplane, radio and silent film.  She watched all the technology emerged that in my boyhood I took for granted, like electricity, the telephone, refrigerators, cloth washers and dryers, air conditioners, etc.  She died a couple years after Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon. 

My mother was born in 1916 and grew up with the radio, at a time when movies morphed from silent pictures into talkies, watched the television age emerge, drove across the country before the interstate highway system was built, and lived long enough to see computers become personal, phones stored in pockets and the world wired for computer networks, although she refused to own a cell phone or computer. 

I was born in 1951, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen as much dramatic cultural change as those two women, but I grew up in front of a TV, watching the advent of the space age, the computer age and the digital age, and if I live long enough I might see far more dramatic transformations.  They both lived to 91, and if I could live as long, I will see the world change as much as they did from 1881 and 1916 until 1951.

Computers are changing the way we all live, but have they changed us as much as the automobile, airplane, radio, movie and television?  Current digital technology often makes me dislike the way I used to do things, even though I feel strong nostalgia for how things were. Take reading for instance, all aspects of my reading habits have changed in my lifetime.  I now listen to books on an iPod, or read them printed on small digital screens like in Star Trek.  For a more specific example, my wife is nagging me about my magazine collection, housed in two six foot high bookcases. 

I love magazines, and spent six years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  My home library contains hundreds of issues from dozens of titles.  Even Susan asks, “Can’t you get them on online?”  I stopped reading newspapers years ago, and I might stop reading magazines soon.  I prefer audio books now, even though I spent my whole life as a bookworm, and 99% of the words I read with my eyes each day come through my computer screen.  I even listen to magazines, like The New Yorker, and prefer it to reading.

The weight of a single sheet of paper is almost unnoticeable, but the weight of twelve shelves of magazines is quite heavy.  Since we had new flooring put in this month, I had to move four bookcases of books, and two bookcases of magazines and the weight of that paper was almost backbreaking.  How many trees went into making all that paper?  What was the impact on the environment?

Awhile back, to do my bit to fight global warming, I started going paperless, and cut my magazines subscriptions from over 20 to just 2 (Sky and Telescope and Rolling Stone – what an odd couple, huh?).  But I kept all my old issues hoping to get the maximum reading value someday, and maybe even clip the best articles to scan into my computer.  I’m at point in time when I’m shifting away from one kind of living, with paper, and moving into another way of life, without paper. 

I still buy an occasional mag at the bookstore, but even that makes me feel guilty, because that means my pile of unfinished magazines keeps growing, and more trees were cut down.  I tend to flip through a magazine and read the shorter pieces and tell myself that I’ve just got to find time for those great longer pieces someday, but I seldom do.  The weight of paper can also be measured in time, and I have a huge amount of time theoretically reserved for that reading.  Throwing all those magazines out will reduce the weight of possessions and free up a lot of imagined obligated hours, probably in the thousands.

I have nice long runs of Sky and Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Popular Photography and many others.  I like to think of them as my reference library, but honestly, I rarely refer to them.  Reading online has become my habitual way of info-gathering.  And since I often read online articles about the dwindling subscriber base to newspapers and periodicals, I’m guessing there are many people like me.  If only they made a Kindle-like reading device with a large full-colored screen, I’d probably do 100% my eye reading from online sources.

But I must also emphasize the shift from eye reading to ear reading has been very important to me.  That’s another paradigm shift, and I think it scares people in the literacy profession.

Throwing away my magazine collection would be like throwing away the past.  According to Wikipedia, general interest magazines started in 1731 with The Gentleman’s Magazine, so will we see the era of the printed magazine end before it’s 300th anniversary?  When I was born the pulp magazine format was dying and the science fiction and fantasy digest magazine was beginning.  Today those digests are disappearing and a new crop of online SF/F magazines are emerging.  Read Jason Sanford’s recent survey of these new short story venues for emerging writers of fantastic fiction.  Will getting published be as exciting?  It will certainly be easier to send copies to your friends.

Today I read “Ten things mobiles have made, or will make, obsolete.”  Among the ten items was paper, (also included were pay phones, landline home phones, MP3 players, netbooks, small digital cameras, handheld game consoles, wristwatches and alarm clocks).  It’s quite easy to read on an iPhone, whether it’s a book, short story, magazine article or news item.

There is also talk that the United States Postal Service is failing.  I can understand why, because only 1 piece of mail in 15 is something I actual need, and even that piece could be eliminated by electronic billing.  Nearly everything I get in my mailbox goes right into the recycling bin.  This is especially a shame for all those fancy full-color catalogs, resources terribly wasted because I don’t even flip through their pages.

The era of paper might be nearing its end.  The more effort I put into recycling the more I realize that most paper trees die in vain, and their lives would be better spent absorbing carbon dioxide.  I will agonize over all the people in paper related industries who will lose their jobs, but the history of the world is change, and nothing stays the same.

If I lived until 2042, to become 91 like my mother and grandmother, I might see the end of newspapers, magazines and books.  I’ll probably see the passing of paper photographs, 8-16-35-70mm film formats, LPs, CDs, DVDs, BDs and any other form of audio-visual physical storage.  Stranger still, I might see the end of libraries and bookstores.  Everything will be digital, and the net will be a universal library.  Newsstands are already disappearing fast.  Bookstore business is still growing, but if the Kindle and its kin catch on, that will change too.  And libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The age of wasting natural resources should end in our lifetimes, either from changing our lifestyles to avoid the worst of global warming, or by adapting to the new environments that global warming brings into existence.  It is impossible to know the future.  It is impossible to know what black swan changes are in store for us.  The folks of 1881 could not picture 1916 much less 1951 and 2009 is beyond anything anyone could imagine from the 19th century, so I can’t really predict 2019 or 2042.

However, when was the last time you put a coin in a pay phone or a letter in a letter box?  How many other things have you stopped doing in recent years that you haven’t even notice you stopped doing?  It’s easy to be amazed by new inventions, but will we even notice when the weight of all that paper is gone?

JWH – 11/24/9

2 Responses

  1. Great post with some very interesting insights. Loved the 10 things mobile will make obsolete

  2. I can only imagine how much those shelves with magazines on them weigh! That is some really dense weight! Sure they weren’t fun to move. But I can definitely relate to the horror of considering tossing them as they no doubt have a lot of sentimental value, plus as objects of their time period they are almost like antiques! Hopefully if you ever do decide to downsize you can make some money off them on ebay or something. Might make it a little less painful.

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