Books Have Nothing to Do with Paper

This tree deserves to become a better newspaper
"This tree deserves to become a better newspaper"

A few weeks back I stumbled upon this advertisement for a newspaper which in loose translation says “This tree deserves to become a better newspaper”. Seeing it was one of those events which short-circuit my mind by causing a storm of concurrent reactions, like hearing religious leaders speak out against using preservatives, for example. The thought vortex went something like this: “It’s like showing a picture of a lamb with the punch line that that lamb deserves to become a tender, juicy steak”, “Is this conclusive proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity?”, “Advertising your way out of a job…”, “Who are these people?!”, “Blissfully detached from the world around them…”…and so on. That advertisement is therefore one of the reasons why I would like to say a few words about books, newspapers and paper publishing in general.

A newspaper is a proper industrial society, 20th century product: it is mass-produced daily in up to millions of copies, packed into vans, trucks, trains and planes, sold in a massive network of points of sale where people stop by to pick them up, read up to 20% of their contents and throw them away at the end of the day. It is worth mentioning that while 80% of paper does get recycled, paper recycling is always a downcycling process (i.e. it can only be done several times) and other used resources (like transportation, storage, various sale costs) cannot be recycled at all.

As for books, they share many of their traits with newspapers: they are mass-produced in fairly large numbers of copies, they take part in the same production and recycling process and a similar distribution process and they typically have roughly the same reusability factor (up to several readers). They also share what has become a kind of a romantic idea of physical contact with paper, its texture, smell and the sound of a turn of a page. The attachment is much more powerful with books: the image of a room with its walls covered by bookcases filled with all kinds of books evokes concepts like wisdom, warmth, comfort, knowledge and serenity.

I have been hearing these sorts of arguments for too many years now and while I can empathise to a degree, it is absurd that those be the chief reasons to continue ignoring all the problems of paper publishing. People clinging to these romantic images is a consequence of the same kind of lazy luddism that must have surfaced when people switched from clay tablets to paper or when the printing press obsoleted hand-written books. I don’t doubt that at the time strong opinions were voiced claiming that the machine-produced book was impersonal and mechanistic, that it somehow vulgarised what once was a lovingly written book and so on. Today this luddism takes the form of ignoring or rejecting e-book readers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, few if any excuses still remain. Device cost is no longer an issue: many people already have one of these devices and if they don’t, an e-book reader or a smartphone can be bought for less than a yearly subscription to a single daily newspaper. They can then be used to read news on-line to one’s heart’s desire or to read any number of the close to 40 000 books freely available on Project Gutenberg alone. They are typically multi-purpose devices and can be used over several years, during which they do not cause massive deforestation or ecosystem collapse through runaway chain reactions. The screens are much better compared to just 10 years ago: now that LCDs and OLEDs are pervasive, comfortable viewing is taken for granted. With e-books, the text is literally identical to that printed on paper.

Everything about the paper book was first and foremost a practical rather than an artistic matter: it was the most practical way to bundle lots off papers together, to protect them from damage and – importantly – it was by far the simplest and most efficient way to package information for distribution. No one would ever claim that one publisher’s version of Crime and Punishment was a more valuable work of art than another’s because of the type of paper it was printed on or because of the book’s cover. Dante, Tolstoy, Neruda or any other writer would be insulted by anyone saying that what they created was somehow less worth because it was written in a different font or on a different medium – the gifts they gave to the world are their ideas and the mental images they painted.

Now that physical information dissemination has probably become a million times more resource-hungry than using the Internet, we are all responsible for adopting the better medium instead of carrying on with the frenzied tree felling campaign we’ve become so comfortable with. People can choose how they read, but children growing up today will soon rightly demand an explanation from us about the resulting damage to the environment. I don’t think “well, I liked the feel of it in my hand” is really going to cut it as an excuse. In a world riddled with uncertainty, there is at least no doubt about this: the only place paper publishing belongs in are history books – digital history books.


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