David Bouchier: The Revenge Of Paper

Sep 18, 2017

A few days before school.started here on Long Island I went to a big office supply store in search of something old-fashioned, like filing folders or yellow pads. Dozens of eager young scholars and their teachers were there before me, stocking up for that long-awaited back-to-school moment. The mass of shoppers didn’t worry me, because I assumed they would be crowding the aisles of computers and electronic gadgets. But no, they were interested only in paper, and all the charming products that accompany paper – pens and pencils, crayons, glue sticks, and folders in many colors.

One studious young man, about 8-years-old, reminded me of myself. Back in the primitive times when paper ruled the world, the stationery store was one of my favorite browsing places. The infinite varieties of pens and inks, notebooks in different sizes, with different bindings and pages ruled wide or narrow, had a tactile quality and an edifying smell that appealed to me, the way paints, brushes and canvases must appeal to a young artist. It seemed that anything was possible, given the right combination of paper, pen, and ink. The whole history of the world and all our best myths and stories have been created out of such simple materials. Shakespeare had nothing but pen and ink, and he did quite well with them.

So, as a child, I haunted the little stationery store in our local high street, no doubt to the anoyance of the owner. But I was amazed to see a young man of the twenty-first century doing much the same thing here and now. He picked over the hundreds of pens like a connoisseur assessing a display of fine miniatures. He opened the notebooks one by one, riffling through the blank pages and frowning in concentration. Clearly he considered that putting pen to paper was a serious business, and of course he was right. In spite of all the efforts of the electronic industrial complex, paper still rules the world. Global paper production is way up, and the average American consumes five hundred pounds per year, about the weight of a large dumpster. Not all of this is school supplies, of course. A lot of it is junk mail, and most of the rest is accounted for by the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., that produces tens of thousands of copies of reports, bills, and regulations for the federal bureaucracy, all of them destined for the shredder.

But even so the schools seem to be falling behind the times. What happened to the educational revolution? I regularly read (in the newspaper) that learning is all supposed to be onscreen and online. No child should come home at the end of the school day with hands and clothes covered in ink, the way we used to do. But it seems that, for once, I am wrong. Paper and writing are still part of the school experience. Some of the childen leaving the office store were so loaded down with paper products that it was hard to see how they would find time to surf the internet or check their twitter accounts in the classroom.

It may be that teachers of a certain age grew up with paper and print, and simply feel more comfortable with these old-fashioned materials. Or perhaps all of us, young and old, are uneasily aware of the fragility of the electronic universe – already deeply compromised by global hackers and cyber-criminals. Nothing is safe, not even in the famous “cloud” which is nothing but another bunch of computers somewhere in California. The cloud may blow away one day, leaving nothing but blue skies and blue screens. Then we will urgently need a nice notebook, and a pen, and some colored folders, and perhaps a glue stick too. It’s always best to be prepared.

Copyright: David Bouchier