From the Monumental to the Ephemeral

Paper

The series this month investigates unexpected thoughts upon the ordinary. We live in an era of plenteous, inexpensive paper. More paper is dumped in the landfill than is recycled despite the fact that we are becoming conscientious about recycling. More paper is made for temporary use such as bathroom tissue and paper towels than is manufactured for books or newspapers. In many ways we are just beginning to come to grips with how much paper we use. Most of us are not willing to adopt cloth baby diapers, although I know mothers who have done just that.

As an avid reader the use of paper for books is something that I am aware of. I personally regard my books as long-term companions. I was appalled when I discovered the old, “brittle-books” and was shocked to discover some of the lengths that librarians were being forced to go to try to save books that were literally disintegrating. In the second part of the nineteenth century the “acid” paper production began and made paper manufacture cheap. The resultant cost reduction has been touted as one of the reasons for the dramatic increases in book production that occurred. Cheap books were not the only result. A century’s worth of literary output was put in jeopardy since the paper deteriorates at an alarming rate and becomes dust.

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By the end of the twentieth century book producers had reduced the use of “acid” papers in favor of “alkaline” paper for all but mass market paperbacks. While I am grateful that most of my library is safe from the rapid self-destruction of acid paper, I bought a book a few weeks ago printed in England that turned out to be printed on the old foe. I bought it online and did not know it was printed on “acid” paper. Personally I don’t understand why any books are being printed on such paper. If you don’t intend to keep the book why don’t you borrow it from a library or read it on a digital device. Why do we need books printed on self-destructive paper?

We live in the unfortunate age where we must shred much of the paper we receive to avoid identity theft yet we still produce “acid” paper for some books! The advertisements for endless credit-cards do not appear to be on cheap paper. They are endeavoring to look as important as possible.

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What responsibility does the Western consumer bear for the manufacture of so much of the world’s “acid” paper in China? They are not known for environmental considerations. Ought we be buying mass-market paperbacks on paper that is more dangerous to the local ecology if that environment is half-way around the world? I think not.

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I love history and historic items. I don’t have any original Victorian papers, but I do think they are lovely. The collectors of the old calling cards, greeting cards, advertisements and other lithographs are hunting for the lovely pieces of the past that have endured. It is called the collecting of Ephemera since antique “bits of paper” are as ephemeral an item as exists.

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These tiny scraps of paper tell us so much about the people who lived before. Their journals, letters and other ordinary records fill in the details of remarkable and simple lives alike. Their legacy is valuable. They tell of life in an epic age of expansion. We are moving further away from paper today. In some ways that is good, but in other ways I do find a bit of doubt.

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How durable is our legacy if we are recording it with bits and bytes? They say that anything uploaded to the internet remains forever. However, will anyone have the tools necessary to read a blog from 2015 in 2080? This blog may not be important in the scheme of things, but could we be a part of something not much different from the “acid” paper debacle in our use of technology? We cannot know what lies ahead. Based on what we can learn from what went before, I think I should print paper copies of some of the precious photos I am storing on the “cloud” just in case I want to see them when I am an old lady.

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