Putting pen to pixel
Those who do not read for pleasure do not understand. I’ll even allow that those who read on a screen or tablet understand more than those who take no pleasure in the written word at all. These digital readers, at least, most likely migrated from the printed page. They can recall the feeling of paper in their hands, the rough cut of a cheap paperback, the smoother grain and heavier weight of a new hardback.
And so it goes with notebooks. The migration from paper to screen is upon us, and it’s conceivable that we may soon witness the death of these old standbys, which will be no bad thing for trees but very sad for anyone who relishes the tactile diversity of different stock.
As a newspaper reporter and magazine writer, I’ve been scribbling in notebooks for over twenty years. But my obsession began long before my professional life. In school, I relished a new exercise book, anxious that my first mark on its clean, white lined page might ruin the whole thing if not quite perfect. I inscribed the title to each masterpiece in my very best handwriting, tucked it tidily into the top left corner, and underlined it heavily for emphasis, as if to say, This notebook will be filled with important ideas.
Many years later, the newsroom provided pads that were spiral-bound, with surprisingly smooth white paper. By then, my handwriting had deteriorated to a barely legible scribble that would crawl across the page, just an aide-mémoire of the many conversations that a beat reporter has while covering the stories that make a community tick. At the paper, we ran through notebooks at the rate of several per week, snatching them by the pile along with a handful of biro pens as we raced off to another house fire, school council meeting, sports game, or crime scene.
When I started to buy my notebooks myself, I began making my own choices. Always lined, slightly grainy and textured, my go-tos have personality. They are all the same size, so that they fit easily into my shoulder bag and can be stored on a shelf, lined up like soldiers. Occasionally, their bindings vary. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to pick up a leather-bound series, with covers that are soft and buttery, a joy to caress, and paper that is a soft cream. And slowly I fill them with my illegible scrawl. But even now, the first page is always neat.
Technological progress can’t resist a good challenge — and over the last few years, that’s included the invitation to improve upon pen and paper. Architects and artists have long used their computers to draw, and the tablet and stylus isn’t an entirely new combination. But there really hasn’t been a mainstream digital alternative to writing notes the old-fashioned way.
Recently, my middle child shoved a mysterious parcel at me. “Open it! Open it!” A sleek box revealed a wafer-thin, brooding dark screen in a white frame. Meet reMarkable. Seduced by a sexy sales video, my husband had ordered it from Europe. It arrived without instructions, assuming that any new owner would have a certain level of technological expertise (setting the bar awfully high for me.) ReMarkable vows to completely replicate the feeling of writing on paper. It also promises to convert my chicken scratch to legible text and send it to my computer. This should really save me the time of interpreting my own hieroglyphics.
But let’s get back to basics. The feel is not bad: there’s a slightly gritty sensation as I move the stylus across the twenty-five-centimetre screen. It almost sounds right. Still, there’s something off. The whole experience is somewhat slippery, and as I write, I’m preoccupied with the thing’s battery life. I worry: What if it crashes and loses my notes for a story not yet written? Or, even worse, what if it loses my notes from an interview that becomes controversial?
In my heart, I know reMarkable is the way forward, but in my soul, I mourn my leather-bound notebooks. I continue to buy books. I love the feeling and weight of paper in my hands, and I do not own an e-reader. But now I no longer have an excuse to peruse my local bookstore’s bargain shelves for writing paper. Infinite blank pages are just sitting on my desk.
A few weeks after my daughter handed me my modern-day steno pad, I snuck out to buy a couple of traditional ones on sale — just as an insurance policy, you understand, in case reMarkable and I don’t get along. They’re now stacked, alongside five or six others, waiting their turn to be desecrated by my deteriorating penmanship. Still, I know I’m obliged to give reMarkable my very best college try. So I’ve put it on the to-do list, somewhere below pairing up mismatched socks in the laundry pile. In the meantime, I carry my new screen around with me, with my leather-bound notebook and other work papers, hoping that I’ll learn to use it through proximity and osmosis.
Or, maybe, I’ll decide not to throw the paper out with the rotary phone. As the relentless march of tech threatens to reshape everything we do, we must acknowledge that sometimes new isn’t always best. As the drawbacks of cellphones become ever more apparent, I’ve noticed that those old Bakelite models that whizzed and whirred are making a comeback. You’ll find them in any design store worth its hip description. Here’s hoping the same will be true for paper in all its forms — books, newspapers, magazines, and my notebooks, those keepers of precious scribbles.