I gave myself a gift this weekend. Not for any special occasion, but just because I felt like it. I took a ride in a time machine.
How, you may ask? I bought a weekend newspaper: a real live ink-on-paper collection of stories, pictures and other useful, useless, and just plain nice-to-know information. And just like the old days, it’s taking me forever to read it. It might be midweek before I finish the feature section and magazine. And I’ll admit that some of the pages are tattooed with coffee cup rings. [I’ve found, through sad, expensive experience, that laptops and smart phones aren’t very good coasters. They absorb liquid differently than paper.]
I’ll have to admit, though, that the online reading habits I’ve developed over the past few years have affected what once was a sacred tradition for me. I find it strange to be able to scan a story, jumping back and forth in it by simply moving my eyes. It’s so much more efficient than thumb-scrolling. And marking a page with a pencil or holding a place with my thumb while I check something? It’s so easy that my re-discovery feels like a new discovery.
I used to be one of those people who subscribed to at least one paper and religiously read the others that I pulled from coffee shop racks and bins. It wasn’t good for the print economy, but it was good for my personal one. And I’d also look forward to breakfast and lunch in restaurants that had a stack of papers for their patrons to read. Wait staff at some of them would even bring you a selection of local and national papers along with your coffee as you were sitting down. These days Covid has put an end to coffee shop and restaurant seating, service and reading. I doubt if we’ll see many of these old traditions return.
Now for the VERY good news: hardcopy newspaper layout encourages me to read stories whose headlines I would ordinarily ignore – or at best, scan – on my phone or laptop. I’m actually better informed. And without going into the volumes of research on learning from paper or screen, suffice it to say that I agree with the science. We retain more of what we read on paper than from screens.
Oh, and did I mention that I did a crossword for the first time in forever? In ink! It was moderately difficult. I need to get back to it, though, since there are some clues that evaded my comprehension after only a single cup of coffee. It also reminded me of the differences in trans-oceanic English. Do you end a word with “re” or “er”? It’s easier when the equivalents are of different lengths [“or” vs. “our”]. Back in the days when we could travel, I usually made it a point to do the crossword in the airline’s inflight magazines while waiting for the boarding process complete itself. There’s a definite correlation of puzzle difficulty between discount and full-service legacy airlines. I’d usually complete the cheap flight puzzles before the safety briefing began. Legacy airline puzzles would sometimes take me almost to cruising altitude, with a pause for take-off sightseeing.
So, what’s it all mean?
I’m a dinosaur.
Think of the monks inhabiting the medieval scriptoria, faithfully married to their meticulously-produced illuminated manuscripts. Then Gutenberg began printing bibles. His moveable typesetting was an important tool in a movement that lead to literacy among the masses. And now? Is a world of emojis, text messaging phonics and abbreviations [u kno, LOL], and easily manipulated images leading us back to the world of hieroglyphics where reading and writing words in complete sentences is the domain of the few?
Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
A.J. Liebling, New Yorker, May 14, 1960
Coffee bean photo in social media headlines courtesy of Alicja Michalik.