Chris Martin

Why paper

Even though I have eliminated every object possible from this apartment the ones that remain have taken on qualities of their departed brothers and they are keeping me awake.

Fisher's Hornpipe, Todd McEwen

Occasionally I have tried to purge my life of things. Sometimes I come to regret the loss of a thing, but more often not. When I bought my car in 2011, it came with a mounting bracket for a front license plate. The state of Georgia issues only a rear plate, and so this plastic rectangle I'd never use sat worthless in a closet until it became casualty to a fit of minimalism some years later.

In 2015 I mostly inhabited tiny offices and apartments of California. I felt the weight of every pound in my suitcase and every object in the coworking space. I confess, the phrase "digital nomad" was in my head as I spent my Bitcoin on the lightest laptop Dell had to offer. I decided to swear off all paper — I am a computer programmer, damn it. I can scan, shred, and file into the cloud any sheet of nonsense you want to give me. Books, undigitized, are far too difficult to move; the imposition would hamper my readiness to make a quick escape from Unaffordable Valley.

For most of 2016 I read research papers in Kentucky cafes. I printed them because I found it difficult to focus and take notes on the tiny laptop. I used FedEx print kiosks; our office had no printer. I was one of the old men, nearly thirty, and my younger colleagues seemed mildly amused by my little stack of coffee-stained paper.

Julie's collection of books serves her love of reading, her distaste for disembodied confinement to a computer, and above all the encouragement of her children's love of reading. One problem with using screens is that people can't tell what you're doing. Julie is not only an avid reader, but visibly so — the children see her read, they see the books on her desk, and they do the same. And they read books because books are there. Physically there. When they look around for something to do, what they see is books.

In 2019, I bought a replacement for the discarded bracket to mount my new Montana-issued tags. I don't feel too bad about the waste; one cannot predict every future need. The children are now reading Calvin and Hobbes collections that I acquired when I was ten and could never bring myself to get rid of. But I guess that's a different kind of thing. The comics aren't something I've kept in case I might need them someday; they're something I choose to keep around because I want their continuing influence — I want the physical imposition on our space. I never predicted that they would end up presenting themselves to the children, but that is what has happened and I am grateful for it.

As an author, I ought to be happy that we can sell e-books with zero printing and shipping overhead. But in truth, the print sales make me a lot happier. We make these products because we want them to affect people. We want them to have a life that extends beyond a single reader. We want to give our ideas inertia, that stubborn quality unique to matter that makes it difficult to remove.

I write about Haskell and related topics; you can find my works online on Type Classes and in print from The Joy of Haskell.