Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review 334: Paper: An Elegy

PAPER: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom. 231 pages, illustrated. Morrow

One reason (of several) that I never pay attention to predictions by digital mavens is that they were so stridently wrong about paper. It is easy to make a wrong prediction, but in this case the evidence was right there.

Surprisingly, Ian Sansom doesn’t use it, although he squeezes an awful lot into a small space in “Paper: An Elegy.” You probably recall the factoid I am thinking of: When the plain paper copier was introduced, Xerox estimated that most users would make a dozen copies a day or so.

Fortunately those early copiers were robust, because counters showed that they were making around 100,000 copies a year: a ream every working day. And even if you never heard that story, it’s hard not to notice that the local stationery store runs a more-or-less continuous teaser sale of copier paper if you buy 10 boxes at a time.

As Sansom shows in this eclectic survey, even if the paperless office had emerged, paper would still be in our hands all the time. In fast-paced chapters, he covers advertisements, money, clothing, origami, games and puzzles, spying, money and much more.

Money might be just about the one use of paper that really will diminish because of digital methods. Yet it is hanging on pretty well still. Who knows, the inability or incompetence of vendors to safeguard credit card data may cause a rush back to greenbacks?

If there is a deficiency in this book, it is that Sansom, a teacher in Ireland, gives so little space to each use of paper; and not much to the manufacture of the stuff, although the bibliography shows where to go for more.

Big swathes of interest are ignored, like the move away from chlorine in paper mills. Barely mentioned, but hugely important, is the fact that digital files have a very short shelf life. Among the great advantages of paper over computers is that, once marked, paper can be read without any tools. Even the biggest libraries have trouble finding machinery to read some of their old digital media.



  1. Eight years ago, I carried forty pounds of paper in the form navigation charts and manuals. I had another twenty pounds of aircraft manuals at home. Each airplane had those flight manuals, plus another twenty pound Minimum Equipment List.

    I never tried, but I wouldn't be surprised if the entire mass stacked would reach at least four feet.

    Today all of it is in an iPad.

    My best friend's grand parents and parents built a large and successful industrial printing company. Among their major customers is an auto manufacturer. Not for much longer, though, as next year they are will putting all their owner's manuals in electronic form.

    Sales of A3 and A4 sizes are down 20% since 2006.

    Paper in many forms is just too cheap and convenient to ever go away. But the book should have looked at more recent evidence than copier counters.

  2. The copier example, as I noted, is mine, not Sansom's. The OfficeMax example is also mine.

    I have lived through a good many hard drive failures by keeping paper backups. And I recall you were irritated to have had your e-book erased by someone else.

    You cannot even get a driver's license without the original (not laminated, not a copy, not digital) of your SSI card. A pointless rule you may think but a rule nevertheless.

    Got any Bitcoins?

  3. I have lived through a good many hard drive failures by keeping paper backups.

    That only makes sense in the past tense.

    I use Dropbox. I scan all paper documents. I put any with critical information in an encrypted disk image. When I save them to my DB folder, they automatically get mirrored to all my devices, in addition to being in DB's servers (which also retain the last seven versions of every document). Besides that, they automatically get backed up locally.

    So without any effort at all, everything I have is backed up in at least six places, which includes geographic dispersion. I then shred the paper. Other than scanning the source documents -- an increasingly rare anachronism: why aren't W-2s electronic? -- I haven't touched paper doing taxes in five years.

    The trend is clear, although it won't be absolute: paper usage will sink like a greased safe. Printers are nearly free, and printer manufacturers are having a tough time giving the things away.

    And I recall you were irritated to have had your e-book erased by someone else.

    You are thinking of someone else. Besides, e-books are easily recoverable.

    Got any Bitcoins?

    I have credit cards. Is there a meaningful difference?

  4. That wasn't you? I misremembered. It was not so easily to recover, since it was Amazon that erased the book and was not prepared to restore it. The end users were stuck.

    Users of Dropbox had better hope that the cost of digitial storage continues to fall at past rates, because the amount stored expands faster than the customer base -- eventually, much faster. The cost then goes up or -- as we have seen already -- the business fails and the data are lost.

    There is at least one big thing about Bitcoins and credit cards. At least one-quarter of Americans do not have a bank, or are severely underbanked. It is possible, barely, to have a credit card without a bank, but not convenient.