Facebook versus The Pen

Alicia BessetteAbout ten years ago, I predicted I’d never walk into a diner and see patrons pulled up to the counter, reading the daily news on their laptops, as morning cups of coffee steamed at their elbows. “People like their newspapers too much, and always will,” I said.

Well, just the other week I was sipping coffee at a diner, and guess what? I counted four laptops and zero newspapers.

I felt dismayed, not because my prediction was wrong, but because newspapers really do seem to be dying. Then I admitted I, myself, read the news online from a variety of sources, and only occasionally buy a daily “paper” newspaper.

Facebook, my all-time favorite online resource, gives me a similar internal dilemma. It’s a powerful networking tool and a unique social forum that has reconnected me with many old school friends I truly thought I’d never hear from again. But since I joined Facebook, I all but stopped penning letters to my regular correspondents (who are all on Facebook too). While I cherish the almost constant social connection Facebook affords, there’s nothing like finding a real letter in your mailbox, or sitting down with pen and paper to devote your full attention to one person.

Similarly, there’s nothing like snapping open The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer and getting ink on your fingertips. And somehow, looking up a word on www.dictionary.com — which I do frequently — just isn’t as satisfying as leafing through an onion skin-paged dictionary.

The solution, of course, is to use a real dictionary, write a real letter, and buy a real newspaper. And recently I’ve resolved to keep doing those exact things. I’d like to thank the Internet for convenience and connectedness — and for inspiring me to hold sacred those paper-based pursuits.

Is the Internet threatening any of your dearest non-Web activities with extinction? What makes our favorite online resources so alluring and irresistible?

~Alicia Bessette

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22 thoughts on “Facebook versus The Pen

  1. I love, love, love reading in the bathtub. Paper books are my thing.

    But paper newspapers? Well, I never liked the ink on my fingers.

    I don’t mind online communication taking over from physical letters (but then again, I never delete my email! I have records going back years and years).

    What I like about blogs over magazines is that I can find *so much* material at the moment I want it. And new stuff every day! Tailored to my specific interests! And discussions in comment trails!

    Dictionary.com, convenient as it is, is indeed not as satisfying as a leisurely stroll through the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Every time we pull the OED out to settle a question of words, any witnesses become entranced, and the evening turns to flipping pages and reading definitions aloud. (Seriously, the OED is fascinating.)

  2. I love everything about newspapers – the slippery feel of them, the crinkling sound they make when I turn a page, even the ink. I’m so sad to see what’s happening to the great newspapers around the country – the buyouts and staff reductions and slashing of foreign bureaus. And even book reviews are suffering – my hometown paper, The Washington Post, just eliminated its Sunday “Book World” section. I’m still subscribing and hope papers will be around in another 10 – no 100 – years!

  3. I, too, much prefer a real newspaper over reading my monitor. Fussing with folding the paper, scanning articles to see what strikes my fancy and going back and forth among sections is much better than clicking my mouse.
    However, seeing as how I can’t get any decent newspaper where I live, (the local papers are either all soccer stories, photos of girls with big butts or really inaccurate/out-of-date info)I am forced to get my news from TV and the Internet.

  4. I hadn’t really thought about this until I read your post, but I honestly don’t remember that last time I got a letter in the mail. I have gotten birthday cards, Christmas cards and the like, but a real letter that someone has taken the time to write by hand and send off to the post office is something I probably haven’t seen since High School (cough 20 cough years ago). I would love to receive one. I have saved some letters from the past, but now I think they mean more than I originally thought they would because they are something to hold onto that no one else has access too (like the web)!

  5. One of my strongest childhood memories is of an enormous faded blue linen covered dictionary that my mother picked up out of a give-away box at a yard sale and brought home to our book shelf. Inside the front cover, on a page the weight of tissue paper, was an inscription from a woman to a man she called “passionate for all things, but especially words.”
    Throughout my school years when I asked how to spell something I was always directed to the dictionary and told to “go look it up.” Never once can I ever remember opening that dictionary without re-reading that inscription and wondering what had ever happened to that lover of words.
    You can’t get that on dictionary.com.

  6. I sort of have a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality with the internet. While I often begrudge the existence of facebook, myspace, youtube, twitter, I must admit that the online community has helped me out quite a bit. The internet has helped me to stay in touch with old friends, make new friends, find jobs, stay up to date with current events, (and escape from bordom during slow days at work). And I must admit, there are some organizational perks to living in a paperless-world: my desk at work is clutter-free!

    I think our modern conveniences have helped me appreciate our old-school ways a bit more. A hand-written note is all the more special. The smell of books is intoxicating. And leafing through the paper with a cup of coffee is more than just a Sunday routine–it’s a luxury.

  7. I forgot to mention…when someone sends a package to me here in the Amazon and they use newspaper for packing I always neatly un-crinkle the pages and read them. One time a guy in Ft. Worth sent me a box of newspapers. The Customs guy at the post office tried to charge me duty on them (they were by then 3 weeks old). I suggested he learn English and keep the newspapers to read for himself. He let me have them.

  8. Oh, how I miss real letters that are delivered to your home by the mailman. Those I keep forever in shoe boxes. E-mail is just not the same. But there are advantages. I keep in touch with more people now and I try to be a good e-mailer, writing real letters instead of just short coded snippets. Still will not text on the phone, which gets me in trouble sometimes because I turned that feature off just as soon as I signed up for a cellphone plan. People text me and get mad when I don’t respond, even though I never received the message. ‘How can you NOT text,’ they say, making me feel like some sort of crotchety cellphone hermit. “I’m happy to speak with you anytime,” I say. Their response expressions seem to say, “You are so very weird.” Maybe I am.

  9. I have been thinking about this a lot lately with the demise of many major papers around the country, and with my local paper (the Hartford Courant) drastically cutting its coverage of local news and Connecticut living. I can only echo the thoughts already penned (ha!) by the preceding posts, but I have something else to add. I have never once walked away from a computer screen refreshed, relaxed, de-stressed, or ready for 7-8 hours of hard core REM sleep. It just doesn’t happen. Nothing escorts my psyche into the realm of nighttime dreamworld like reading a paper book, but especially fiction, before bed. And sitting on the beach, catching rays and listening to the timeless surf crashing into the shore would not be the same with a laptop resting on my legs. It would also hurt more when it crashes into my face during dozing.

    As far as the papers go, I think that much more troubling than the demise of our tactile experiences of AM luxury in the loss of the talented people who research, report and write for these institutions. The loss of them may prove to be an unrecoverable tragedy for our culture if we’re not careful.

  10. I don’t much care about newspapers disappearing, and if I really want to send a written letter, nothing is keeping me from doing it, but I hope they never stop printing books.

  11. Thank you, friends, for the great conversation.

    Sarah & Corey: You make sobering points about the people who work for newspapers. Jobs for print journalists and photographers are disappearing. It’ll be interesting to see how the industry evolves and changes.

    Also, Corey, I’ve read a lot about insomnia (because I occasionally battle it), and many sources say that computer screens (and television) signal your brain to wake up. But I do love reading books in bed until my eyes droop!

    And, Emily, I love reading in the tub, too. Most of my books are puckered and discolored from water stains.

    Scott: Nothing like checking out newspapers from different countries. The best was a London paper (I forget which) that allowed you to trace your “bum” and compare it to those of celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and J-Lo. (Yes, of course, I totally traced mine. But I can’t remember whose bum I had.)

    Robin: My favorite thing about used bookstores is finding inscriptions in old books, left by people you never knew. So romantic and mysterious.

    The Novelist & Q: I save letters; I still have some notes from grade school, actually, and postcards friends sent while on summer vacation in middle school. Sometimes I think I’ll throw them out, because I have pack-rat tendencies. But many I’ve kept, because like you say, they are things no one else can have.

    And, BD, speaking of de-cluttering … When I first heard of the Kindle, I was appalled. But when I look around my apartment at the stacks and stacks and STACKS of books, a Kindle doesn’t seem all that offensive!

  12. Someday, some “kid” (under 30) will rush into his office in a high rise in Boston after getting off the train, waving a newspaper around and saying, “Hey, look, I read the news on the train on the way to work in the newspaper. It was very restful.” And it will be retro and cool. Or I’ve had one too many El Presidente margaritas.

  13. never read newspapers for anything other than The Far Side, so I’m not very nostalgic about them or concerned about their demise. The demise of JOURNALISM, however, is concerning. I still handwrite my rough drafts instead of typing. That’s kinda good, right?

  14. Sometimes I have a mini-panick attack when I walk into work and I notice there’s NOTHING on my desk but a computer. Where did all my stuff go? Then I realize, I never had any papers there to begin with! I’m still getting used to this whole clutter-free stuff.

    And I do like having at least a few paperbacks scattered around my room– they make the space seem more warm and lived-in.

  15. I recently sorted every box in my house, which means I found years’ worth of memorabilia. I found letters! Actual, handwritten letters, sent just at the dawn of e-mail (at least in my life. This was 1992-94ish). I’d actually forgotten the letters even existed. My high school friends writing me, talking about their college experiences, boyfriends, roommates. Letters from my now-husband.

    E-mail is great and I guess they’re all stored on some Great Server Somewhere but what good does that do?

    I still get a daily newspaper at my door!

  16. I have to admit I loved the brief period when my husband had a kindle and there were no newspapers in the house. He gets three a day and then leaves bits of them everywhere. He missed the feel of them though and being able to scan quickly through, so the Kindle went and we’re back to a huge pile of recycling every week. Guess who takes it out!

    I did try the reading on the Kindle and didn’t like it A) I love books too much and B) the Iphone had conditioned me to touch screens 🙂

  17. There’s nothing like a real letter, card, newspaper, etc., to have and to hold in one’s hands. But to answer your question Alicia from my sociologist’s POV: The irresistible allure is instant gratification.

  18. We still get a daily newspaper and I don’t want to miss reading through it at 5.30 am so that I know what happened in our area and in the world but when I come home from work I’m always more curious about my e-mails because in my letter box I usually find nothing else than bills and adverts.
    It is much more interesting to read e-mails from friends all over the world.
    How quickly can you have the answer and organize so many things quite easily.
    I remember our teenage time when we wrote letters to each other every day!!!(There are some shoe boxes full of them in the basement.)
    When we go on holiday our laptop is always with us to stay in contact with family and friens.But we both don’t like texting on the phone so our children meanwhile gave up sending text messages 🙂
    But then… it’s very nice to find a real handwritten letter or postcard in the letterbox, too.

  19. I’m behind in your articles, Alicia. This one touched a nerve – the death of longhand letter writing. It’s a custom that’s, unfortunately, but true, dying. My mother and her sister, Flora, use to exchange letters once a week. Of course, that was partly because long distance calling was too expensive to do it every week. But, there’s just something special about putting pen to paper. There’s something that’s “classy” about a hand written “thank you” or just a letter to “catch up.” I’m doing it more often. And, I also write my play drafts longhand. It’s the tactile”ness” of the experience.

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