I can’t quit paper

As both student and teacher, I have used a lot of digital tools. During my graduate studies at the University of Texas, I worked at the Digital Writing and Research Lab. I’ve been responding to student writing in digital-only format for years. I currently work at an online university, putting a variety of software to good use.

But I can’t get away from paper. This goes for both reading and writing.

Next to my keyboard I always have (at least) one notebook or notepad. The end-result of all my professional work may be done online, but handwritten notes play a vital role in how I process information for work, and the same is true for my personal information processing.

My writing process has always been meandering. When writing longer pieces, I will skip back and forth between different sections of a paper on a screen—even stopping mid-sentence when a new idea enters my mind. I will also stop typing in order to jot down notes on paper. Moving between different writing media seems to help if I get stuck on the screen, and the feel of pen on paper will, for me, always be preferable to the clack of keys.

Green memo notebook with blue penI also use pen and paper for shorter writing. I try to journal at least a few lines every day (and sometimes end up writing much more). Currently I use an A5 sized notebook for my journal but have used a wide variety of formats over the years. I carry a Skilcraft Memoradum notebook in my shirt pocket for my daily to-do list and other odd notes. Despite keeping my family’s schedule organized in a Google Calendar, I also use a paper planner.

The place I’ve felt the strongest desire for paper most recently, however, is in reading. I’d guess that 90% of my pleasure reading has been on an e-ink reader for the past five years. Such a format is ideal for consumption, but, when it comes to nonfiction reading, I need to be able to annotate, and e-ink does not work well for that.

Much of my professional reading has been in pdf format on a computer screen where annotation is more feasible, but nothing seems to come close to handwritten marginalia. Just the act of reading off a screen, for me, is less enjoyable than reading off a page.

Enjoyment becomes particularly relevant when I am reading nonfiction for my own personal studies. While researching for my dissertation, I could push through pdf after pdf, but when it comes to research after hours, burdensome reading more often than not leads to no reading at all.

Case in point: I have a growing collection of historical freethought and secularist texts on my hard drive that I’ve been slowing working through over the past few years and not making much progress.

Contrast those electronic files with a hard copy I acquired of Ernestine Rose’s collected works edited by Paula Doress-Worters: Mistress of Herself. I moved through that text at a steady pace, even though it is a chunky book that isn’t the easiest to carry around.

Given my preference for paper, I chose one of the pdf files I was most interested in: Frances Wright’s Course of Popular Lectures. I printed it out in booklet form, and I placed it into a half-sheet size binder a couple days ago. I’m already about 100 pages in.

Pablack three ring notebook opened to Wright title page with penper, of course, has its disadvantages compared to the electronic word. Digital text is easier to search, copy, paste, and rearrange. However, the feel of reading and writing on paper has real advantages that I can’t let go. Joe over at The Gentleman Stationer has an excellent series, “The Digital Divide,” on the intersection of digital and analogue that goes in depth into these issues.

When it comes to digital vs. paper, there are environmental and cost considerations as well. I won’t be able to print out every document in my pdf collection, but for those texts I want to give extra consideration, the paper version works better for me in many cases than the digital. The immediacy of marginalia and the tactile feel of pages flipping in my hands makes the experience more engaging than screen reading and writing.

There is a principle mentioned from time to time on The Pen Addict podcast that applies to this topic. Ana Reinert describes the idea as using “the right tool for the right job.” Finding what works for you has been one of the best insights I’ve gained from the stationery community along with the many reviews experimenting with products so that I don’t have to.

The right tools will change from person to person, and they can change even for one person as circumstances and tastes change. The encouragement to experiment helps me stay productive, even (or perhaps especially) when I rediscover how well certain tools and methods work after trying a different approach for a time.


About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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