Paper Trails

There has been much talk over the past couple of weeks about the future of the “paper” part of this — and all other — newspapers. Readers continue to ask whether this newspaper will continue printing seven days a week, even though the question has been answered.

The short answer, provided by both outgoing publisher Tony Baker and incoming publisher Chris Anderson, is “Yes.” The long answer is, “Probably not forever.” In an age of all things digital, what very recently seemed an exotic alternative now appears almost inevitable. The transition process has not yet begun, but the conversation about that process is well underway.

To that conversation, please add this.

I have a bookshelf in the front room of my house, filled with every book I read or tried to read for my first two decades of my adulthood. You could be excused if you saw no connection between Dave Berry and Wendell Berry, between the early work of C.S. Lewis and the later work of Lewis Carroll, or between Houdini’s book on magic and Mark Twain’s writings about publishing. There is no connection, except me.

A man once accompanied his wife to a party at my house and he never made it past that front room. “You can tell a lot about a person by the books they keep,” he told me. “You are a wide man, as far as interests go.” The dimension he mentioned wasn’t literal, but it was true.

He couldn’t do the same today. Most of what I’ve read in the past 20 years has been on-line or with e-readers. They’re not real books anymore. None of my earlier books had password protection. They had weight and width. I occasionally thumb through one, for no particular purpose. I might read some notes in the margin that I no longer remember having written.

I have now 20 years of books that I can see but don’t remember, along with 20 years of newer books that I remember but cannot see.

I don’t know about you, but I benefit from feeling the end of a book approaching. I thumb ahead to count down the pages. The back cover of the book pulls me toward it, like a child smelling grilled burgers swims back to shore. The smell of what’s next makes the ending easier to take.

We’re asking the next generation to do without most of that.

Tell me now: when are you finished reading the news? Without physical newspapers stacking up, how will you know when you’ve fallen behind? My iPad weighs the same, whether it’s carrying three unread newspapers or none. No matter how much I’ve read, there’s always more. There are hyperlinks I could have clicked, more scrolling I could have done.

Yes, I know that scrolling is an apt metaphor, harkening back to the printed word before books. But that was also before most people could read. Books brought a golden age of literacy — or maybe the only age of literacy. People learned to read in part for the satisfaction of having read. The final 100 pages of any book are always easier than the first 100, because completion awaits, flipping burgers on the shore.

When the first iPhone appeared in our palms, the engineers gave its interface mechanical signals to comfort new users. Scroll wheels make little clicking noises. Swipe the image past its top or bottom and it has a playful little bounce at the end. These subtle signals are profound. They express “enough.”

What does “enough” look like in a digital world? Are we thinking that one through? Have we worried about its absence enough?

Video game designers pull out all the stops when you win their game. Music plays. Fireworks burst across the screen. There’s your moment, with your name in lights! You did it!

Finish an ebook or any newspaper online and what do you get? With an ebook, you might see a blank page, or links to other books somebody thinks you’ll like. With an electronic newspaper, there is no end. That could spell trouble.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs