The Idler: Paperlessness

I do not own a computer printer. My computer is itself a small laptop, which would be too easily dwarfed by such a thing. Worse, if I did have a printer, I would be tempted to use it, and I would soon find that I needed an extra filing cabinet, then a bank of cabinets, to house all the paper that would be consumed. Alternatively, I could avoid turning myself into a filing clerk and become resigned to living in paper-mulch squalor. In which case, all the paper becomes useless, for one can never find anything.

I live in a modern urban ivory tower (well, brick-and-concrete tower, but the view is golden), and ivory towers are notoriously short on storage space. In the course of an average day, during which I spend too much time on the Internet, I see a hundred items sufficiently interesting that I might wish to reach for them again. Not that I ever will—and not having a printer removes the temptation.

Which is not to declare against paper entirely. I have kept—and still keep—notebooks, commonplace books, diaries, slips, sketchbooks. My hero, Rudyard Kipling, would not even keep those. He argued that if a fact or observation does not so impress itself on your mind so that you will remember it without such artificial aids, then it is not worth remembering. He was a man with a prodigious memory, whose books are crawling with facts rendered precisely, including myriad comprehensions of how highly technical things work. I am no match for him.

So my principle is “halfway to Kipling.” If something impresses me as truly worth remembering, I transcribe it in my own hand. (This leaves me to file only my own paper.) I find that the act of recording such things, as exactly as possible, for my own use alone, is in itself a great help to attention and therefore memory. So that when I have lost old notebooks and the like—and I have lost plenty, in addition to those I have purposely discarded I need not despair. For I can remember with tolerable accuracy things that happened many decades ago, simply because I faithfully recorded them at the time. Having made the transcription, I no longer need it.

Printing, in all its myriad forms (including electronic), has proved a mixed blessing in the time since Gutenberg introduced moveable type (or, several centuries before that, when the Koreans did). It has been useful for the transmission of ideas, and even for the retention of texts, only because it vastly multiplies the number of copies of each document. But the trees become obscured by the forest.

The ancients, medievals, and civilized Orientals had the advantage over us because paper (or parchment, papyrus, and silk) was so expensive for them. They therefore did not use it casually; and almost anything that washes up, however randomly, from the distant past is likely to be not only interesting but beautiful—whereas 99 percent of what we produce today is unarguably trash, and 99 percent of what then remains is arguably trash. If our graphic heritage survives at all, it will give the archaeologists of the future pointless, excruciating headaches. They will also make ridiculous mistakes, such as confusing the location of a large city with a landfill hundreds of miles away, to which its garbage was trucked.

What excites me about the decline of printed-and-mailed journalism is that it returns the “printed” word to the condition of conversation. We may stop cluttering our libraries with secondary literature. Let the job of reviewing things be consigned to cyberspace, and let the best books and imagery re-emerge from the welter. In some new way, we might reinvent the scriptorium—put our journalism into the electronic plumbing, while living, ourselves, among works of art.

David Warren


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is