Paperless, Please

While it's possible today to conduct every state of the writing process without ever touching a piece of paper, to Scott McLemee, it sounds like a relentless hell of perfect efficiency.

October 21, 2015

Among my earliest memories is scribbling lines across a sheet of paper and handing it to someone (this was around age four, so presumably one of my parents) and asking them to read it. Whether precocious or clueless, what matters is that the aspiration formed early. I’ve learned a little more about the process since then. But that’s still what it comes to: scribbling lines across a sheet of paper and handing it to someone to read -- following a detour through the keyboard, since one thing that hasn’t improved is my handwriting.

Paper is magnetic: it draws more paper to itself, chiefly by means of the activity we call “research.” Today, in what seems to be an incipient norm, it’s possible to conduct every stage of the writing process -- from preliminary reading to final revision -- without ever touching a sheet of paper. To me it sounds like a relentless hell of perfect efficiency. Half of thinking, let alone writing, is getting a feel for the material, and that always means going through a literally prehensile phase: grasping a pen, holding an archival document, marking up laser prints with a sharply hued yellow highlighter.

That need may be anachronistic, but it’s wired into my nervous system, down deep and for good. And it makes my current efforts to “go paperless” -- something I rejected and avoided as long as possible, but now irrevocably underway -- both difficult and ultimately paradoxical. I am ambivalent but resigned. There is plenty of time for both second-guessing and steeling of the will during the long hours needed to feed thousands of pages into a scanner by hand, one by one.

What is at issue, ultimately, is the problem of space. The roughly 70 square feet of floor space in my study holds two four-drawer filing cabinets, plus bookshelves and a couple of spots to accommodate a laptop and some legal pads. (I recall seeing a coffee table book of photographs of writers’ desks in which Alain de Botton referred to his, a trifle portentously, as a “sacred plinth of creativity.” When one of the cats sprawls across my papers, I am reduced to saying, “Get off my sacred plinth of creativity!” This never works.) Several years ago it became necessary to supplement the filing cabinets with a sturdy cardboard box or two.

It did not stop there, of course: paper attracts paper. Around 2005, I was deep into research on a topic involving a large number of writers from the early 20th century -- some well-known then and a few still remembered, but most of them fairly minor, so that any photograph, archival trace or WorldCat listing was potentially crucial. The “inside the book” search features at Google and Amazon provided many leads worth following up. The easiest and most logical course at the time was to print them out. Ditto for appropriate web pages and scholarly papers. Meanwhile, more paper was accruing around other projects -- not to mention the small forest consumed in writing this column each week, in addition to the seasonal flux of galleys for new books.

As of this summer, the boxes were stacking up three and four deep, and occupied so much ground that getting from the door to my chair was a short but challenging obstacle course. And there is no end in sight, even with regular winnowing. Very often a document had annotations and cross-references that represented an investment of time and attention, and were still of value to me even though the item itself (an article from JSTOR, for example) would be easily replaceable.

Anyone whose methods and habits were shaped in the past few years might well consider my predicament inexplicable, if not ridiculous. And fair enough. The hundreds of pages that I mentioned having printed out 10 years ago would now be practically effortless to collect using Evernote, and possible to store without consuming an inch of space. Evernote also makes it easy to “clean up” the material so gathered -- stripping out advertisements, design elements and anything else besides whatever kernels of substance you want to preserve -- while also recording the online location of the original.

The option of highlighting and annotating material in PDF, rather than on a printout, has been around for a while -- although those of us stuck with old software (or lacking technical guidance) could not actually do so until fairly recently. Now there are numerous cheap or free applications that make marking up a PDF possible no matter what the user’s circumstances. (That’s another advantage of Evernote: besides being able to store and retrieve a PDF, the user can annotate it.)

Some of the files that now threaten to trip or suffocate me go back more than 25 years. They are the product of hundreds of trips to libraries and archives, and thousands of hours of grappling with long-term projects as well as numerous flurried episodes of obsessive fascination (e.g.: Was the political scientist who wrote a standard text on psychological warfare while also publishing science fiction under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith also the patient that psychiatrist Robert Lindner wrote about in the memorable case study “The Jet-Propelled Couch”? I have notes). The grounds for preserving all of it are well established, or at least unshakably well rationalized, as earlier comments here may have suggested.

And yet the fact remains: crossing the floor of my study has become hazardous, and stacks of notebooks make it hard to use the sacred plinth of creativity, even for a catnap. The situation being in all ways unstable, I started taking extreme measures earlier this month. There’s bound to be someone else in a comparable situation, so the details might be useful to record.

The first step -- obvious but difficult -- was a general turnover, identifying anything that I could feel reasonably certain on quick inspection to be disposable and carting if off to the recycling bin. Judging by the size of the piles relative to a ream of typing paper, this meant discarding around 10,000 pages in two days.

Any sense of relief was short-lived. At least as much remained, and each later stage of culling would be more labor intensive. As noted, the ideal place to store all the material I gathered 10 years ago from library catalogs, Google Books search results, etc., was Evernote. The difficulties involved in time travel meant that my only option was a do-over. That is, I had to go through the printouts and relocate (as much as possible) the citations, blog entries, historical society websites and so forth, and store them in Evernote. This at least rendered the information easily searchable, but the effort was tedious and often frustrating, since finding everything was not possible even using the Internet Archive. My files contained documents or information that have vanished from the web -- which at least made the decision to print them off years ago seem at least somewhat worthwhile.

Such items went into a folder to revisit. My next step was to go through the printed copies of articles and conference papers from JSTOR and other databases to weed out the duds (usually identified as such by exasperated and occasionally insulting comments scribbled on the cover page) and then compare what remained against what I had in PDFs in my digital archive. Again, it was slow work. (Plus there was the temptation to read, just a little ….) But there was much encouragement in seeing the growing pile of duplicates -- paper that I could discard without really losing the content.

Then came what felt like the crossing of a threshold: the moment when I took the scanner out of its box, installed the software and began creating PDFs of photocopied documents from archival research, material from now-vanished web pages and printouts of articles from databases I could no longer access (or, in some cases, remember). Eventually, I noticed that the scanning device (brand name ScanSnap) could handle color -- meaning that all those laboriously highlighted and annotated pages I could never bear to part with could be rendered as PDFs. The bar started getting higher for what I feel compelled to preserve on paper.

The scanner requires a user to feed each page in one by one -- and carefully, since otherwise the image can turn out wavy or unreadable. The process is only slightly less monotonous than an Andy Warhol film, and I have at least two or three long days of it ahead. Then it will be necessary to give the PDFs descriptive labels and organize them in files.

When you are your own intern, the mind does wander. And mine keeps coming back to a few things, each simple enough yet approachable for revisiting from different directions. One is that the process cannot be undone. The boxes full of old research materials -- and not a few drafts of things I’ve published and long since forgotten -- will be pulped, and what remains is an image entrusted to a ghostly medium. That means placing more trust in the electrical grid than I can quite justify.

Another recurring thought in the process is an exchange between space and time: every five hours I spend on the work equals X cubic centimeters of room that will not be occupied by a cardboard box. At the same time, each cubic centimeter of paper is a fraction of the time consumed, thus far, in writing (or in the case of research, reading and hoarding the traces of others’ lives and thoughts).

And finally, there is the impossibility of what’s going on here under the banner of “going paperless.” Because I can’t, won’t and wouldn’t if I could. Now that my files are being rendered digital, they can travel with me anywhere, and I will be able to read them in the only way I know how: with an open notebook, pen in hand.

(No reference here to an application or device should be taken as an endorsement, nor have I received compensation or any other incentive for mentioning them. In most cases, other tools are available that perform the same or similar functions. Those named are simply the ones that, over time, I’ve tried and found useful.)


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