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Utopian Paperless Society

February 21, 2011

As you read this, I’ll be a few days into a month-long meditation retreat, from which I shan’t be sending columns. So, the next five columns are repeats from 2001. Ten years—fun to consider what’s changed and what hasn’t:

January 5, 2001

The year 2001 should have found us well into the utopian Paperless Society, but instead our electronic world produces more paper than ever. Computers have made it far too easy to produce a printed document.

Our desire for print on paper is reasonable: it’s easy to read, you can take it to bed, you can annotate it, you can possess it for the rest of your life and even burden your children and grandchildren with it.

Not least, the printed word is a talisman of sorts — when we walk away from the laser printer with the beloved text still warm on the page, we feel we’ve really got something.

Now, more than ever, we may find that what we have in hand is not much of anything. It’s so easy for anyone to burp out a fine-looking document that such documents abound.

Sometimes, I’m flabbergasted at the volume of written matter: advertising, business communications, newsletters, newspapers, magazines, books. Now, we must add to the list the omnipresent Web Page. It’s as easy to create a bad web page as it is to create a bad newsletter.

We’ve yammered and gossiped in the streets and cafes for millennia. But that wasn’t enough, and so we invented the newspaper, and then the Christmas newsletter, and now the World Wide Web.

It takes a lot of effort to produce good written work and present it well. The effort starts with the author’s investment in thought, research, writing, and re-writing. Then, editors demand more re-writing. Then proofreaders and typesetters and designers get the book ready for printing and binding.

The finished products vary greatly, of course. Consider modern bestsellers in hardcover. They’re expensive but often poorly bound. The spine breaks after a couple of readings.

I remember the old Penguin paperbacks that were still sound and flexible after years in used book shops. You’d want hair like this paper, so fine and silky. The book fell open and stayed open. They were a delight to read one-handed. You didn’t have to pinch the binding with all your might and risk a cramp in your thumb.

I saw the ultimate in books on the PBS show, Newshour, last week. Arion Press in San Francisco makes books by hand. They set the type in lead using a century-old machine, probably something like the typesetter still used at the Saguache Crescent. The pages are pressed into fine papers and bound by hand. Their 1979 edition of “Moby Dick” has been judged one of the greatest American fine press books of all time.

The Newshour segment focused on Arion’s current project–a new bible. Only 400 will be made, at a price of $7,750 for cloth-bound or $8,500 for leather. Add $2,500 for illumination, by hand, of the large ornate letters that begin each chapter. The show’s brief footage of the artisans at work was immensely appealing.

There is, in fact, something lovely about type that’s been pressed into the page. It’s three-dimensional to both sight and touch. I believe it’s easier to read. But, it’s a technology old and rare now, and thus expensive.

When we hold a well-bound book with its sturdy, flexible spine and good paper, and we feel the balance of its weight and the way the pages turn over with a swan-like grace, and read the thoughts pressed deep into the paper for all time, we might hope that we come across so well ourselves.

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