Virtual ink, or the passing of a ritual

A friend and I were chatting on the phone, discussing an article we'd both read in the Sunday New York Times. Before moving on to something else, she mentioned in passing that she had recently canceled her subscription. A native New Yorker transplanted out West, my friend had just sworn off one of the basic pleasures of civility: She had given up a life-long habit of wading through the Sunday paper, circling an ad here, a headline there, clipping out a favorite column, relishing the particular messiness of the paper, half-read, in layers on the kitchen table.

Suddenly the scent of mocha brewing in the background went unaccompanied. The tandem pleasures of coffee and newspaper, joined inextricably with Sunday mornings, and the leisure to imbibe both, were gone. The daily paper was one thing; the Sunday edition, with its multiple, rich sections, was quite another.

So much for ritual.

My friend made no excuse about having too little time, or too much to read. Instead, she found herself reading the Sunday paper online. She had begun to consider the hard-copy version redundant.

While I marveled at the simplicity of her logic, I clung to the revolutionary nature of her act.

My friend and I grew up with "Leave It To Beaver" - not "Beavis and Butthead." We grew up at a time when reading meant words on paper, not text on a screen. We have our generational preferences: paper good, computer bad. (Yes, destruction of forest also bad; but paper, especially recycled, still better than impersonal machine.)

It wasn't until months later that I fully grasped the magnitude of my friend's transformation. Leaving town for a couple of weeks, I halted delivery of my own Sunday paper. Upon return, I didn't rush to renew delivery. I looked at the backlog of unread papers stacked high on the floor and came up with a plan: When I got through the accumulated pile, I'd reward myself with a new subscription.

Such obvious delusion, however, would garner no reward. Indeed I lacked the interest needed to tackle old news, and I lacked a current newspaper to provide a more timely standard. My plan proved doubly punishing.

As if afraid to re-start the process - to amass a fresh stack of partially read papers - I addressed the issue indirectly. I started to read the Sunday Times online, pointing and clicking my way through the paperless ether.

No one had warned me about how liberating this might feel.

I could read whatever I wanted without all those other sections vying for my attention. The screen is the sum total of what one can see at a given time - links to other sections are less daunting than stacks of newsprint only inches away. There was no ink to darken my fingers, no dog-eared pages, none of the guilt that hangs quietly, insidiously, over an unread pile.

This was, in every sense, Reading Lite - inkless and weightless, without residue.

Of course, I was free to print out the articles I chose, and I did. But to my great surprise, I had bridged the chasm between print and screen, real and virtual, old and new, almost seamlessly. By accident, through the chance alignment of vacation and halted newspaper delivery, I had become a virtual Sunday-paper reader.

Never mind the larger implications of this change for the newspaper business. My friend and I may represent the industry's worst nightmare - people for whom the print and online editions of a newspaper actually compete, who, for practical or philosophical reasons, choose the free online edition over the paid, print one. Nor are we, middle-aged white females, the obvious demographic that would threaten the future of print.

I suppose my conversion can be likened to that of the cotton purist when "blended fabrics" and "permanent press" came along. Pure cotton is a pleasure all its own, hampered only by its need for care and feeding. Newspapers are much the same. Both versions, print and online, have much to recommend them, and rituals of their own.

At heart, I remain a purist in both camps. I'll always defend the virtues of pure cotton and real newspapers. And I'm glad to be living at a time when ironing, and ink, are optional.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer living in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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