in defense of pen & paper



~3 min read


427 words

I seem incapable of reading without a pen in hand. If I am not in a place where I can underline or jot a note in the margins — I don’t read. I wait.

This can certainly be limiting. It means that where and when I read is limited to where I can sit down. It means that when I read, I’m reading one thing. I can’t click through a hyperlink, open a new tab, and wind up down a rabbit hole. The article I read is one that I chose and decided it was worth my time, so I printed it out. That’s how it wound up on the stack in the first place. Though printing doesn’t guarantee the article gets read, it’s an investment I’ve made and my sunk-cost bias kicks in.

It means that I need to be reading things on paper. To accommodate, I print out articles from the web, subscribe for newspapers to be delivered, and buy book books - all of which are organized in piles. A stack of articles I want to read dominates half of my desk. In a stack next to my bed are books I look forward to dive into. In contrast to when I used Instapaper or Pocket to manage my reading list my reading list now maintains an inescapable physical presence in my life. That presence requires constant care and attention. I manage the growth because if they grow too big, they become unwieldy. At a certain size, when I can’t find anything in them, they’ve lost their purpose and instead of serving up what to read, they merely consume space. So, I review and prioritize constantly. I drop pieces that I no longer feel like I need to read. It’s easy to forget that there are limits when we store bits, but stacks of paper are hard to ignore.

Which begs the question - why do I do it? Why deal with these burdens? Because it’s rewarding. The stack is a reward. When I finish a book or article, it gets removed from my “to read” pile. And as the pile dwindles, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve won a victory - the reward for which is to do it again. When I read, I’ve chosen to do so deliberately. I’ve selected the material. I move through it slowly, at an almost plodding pace, but when I reach the end, more often than not, I’ve learned something. That’s rewarding. The costs of reading with a pen in hand are costs I happily bear.

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