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March 2011

Touching the words

Their birth dates are all in the early 1990s.  They're undergrads in the Honors class that Liz & Sylvia are teaching, and I went in yesterday to talk about issues involving copyright and plagiarism and retractions in the context of the role of librarians in preserving and transmitting culture.  I wanted to frame it, as I often do when talking about this stuff, by comparing the world that we now live in with the beginnings of print culture in the late 15th century.  I'll usually talk about what a long time it took from those beginnings for a truly mature print culture to emerge.  I've often used the phrase "the mature print culture that we all grew up in" because my audiences have always been people for whom that's true.   But I realized as I was speaking yesterday that I'd have to say, "The mature print culture that I grew up in..."  as contrasted to the nascent digital culture that they've grown up in.  Digital natives.

I wrote a letter to Josie yesterday morning, as I do every few months.  I imagine these letters to be read by a Josie who is 12 or 14 or so, a young woman who'll get a kick out of reading about what she was like in her own pre-literate era.  But she is emerging from that now.  Her reading is clearer every time I see her, and her writing is getting stronger.  We spent nearly twenty minutes after dinner the other night as she wrote out for me a Valentine's Day poem that she'd learned at school.  When we were at  DSC03300 John & Evelyn's some weeks ago, we'd get up in the morning together and she'd write in her diary sitting next to me while I wrote in mine.

Soon I'll have to quit writing letters to her older self -- I'll need to be writing them to the girl she is now. And then, I think, will she want to write back to me? She's fascinated right now with her ability to form words.  But for how long will the notion of putting pen to paper, rather than fingers to keyboards, retain any appeal?

Twenty years ago, for reasons that I won't go into here, I switched my daily journal writing from the notebooks that I'd been using to the computer.  For about five years, I did all of my journal writing that way.   But the letters that I wrote to Lynn were done with pen on fine stationery (the way I write letters to Josie now).   After I moved to Birmingham and the flow of letters to Lynn gradually slowed (although it never has entirely stopped, and it never will), I found myself moving back to the pen and paper journal.  It seemed to give me something I was missing.

There is an intimacy to writing with a pen on paper that cannot be replicated electronically.  The screen is forever between you and the words.  There is an esthetic quality to the pen and ink and paper that is inherent in their physicality.  It is rare, very rare, that I will spend half an hour in a bar or restaurant writing in one of my leather bound Italian journals and somebody won't make some comment about how beautiful the journal itself is.  The envy in their voices, and the sense of desire to handle such beautiful objects is palpable.   We are physical creatures, not digital constructs, and we respond to physical things.  Sometimes I need to write something down for the content and any medium will do.  Sometimes I ache for the physical act of writing and nothing can substitute.

I've pointed out many times that if I'm writing an essay, I want to do it at the keyboard.  That's the best tool.  But if I'm writing a love letter to Lynn, a fountain pen and fine paper are the only sensible  tools to use.  Neither is better than the other in any absolute sense -- they have different qualities which make them appropriate for different purposes.   I don't think my chef's knife is better than my paring knife -- I need them both when I'm working in the kitchen.

I expect to be writing letters to Josie for the rest of my life.  I'll certainly communicate with her electronically as well, but the letters are a kind of communication that can't be replicated in any other medium.  As my little digital native grows older, I hope that she never loses touch with the magic of making little marks by hand on pieces of paper -- little marks that change lives.