When the Paperless Movement was in full force, I was fatalistic. Going totally digital was inevitable. And like anyone who needs to prepare for a new world, I started readying my supplies, or, in this case, getting rid of them.
As we now know, the Paperless Movement didn’t quite take.
Though cardboard boxes are the true paperless defeaters in this age of delivery, paper’s survival means that the tactile and quaint stationery world will go on. There will be fountain pens; there will be cheap hotel pens; there will be pens found underneath couch cushions. Industrial copiers will continue their magnificently complex operations and malfunctions. In a way, it’s nice because those of us who thought we’d be old timers regaling youngsters with copy room horror stories need not worry: we can now just focus on regaling youngsters about pre-smartphone life.
The thing that the Paperless Movement mistakenly assumed was that humans can be like computers. We are always aspiring to ever more efficiency, a never-ending root-deep, genetic drive.
The Paperless Movement set a lure made up of promising gizmos. Our gaze acquired, we were propositioned: by shrugging off paper, our toil would be significantly lessened. We would transcend the analog natures of ourselves and beam into a digital realm.
And so we became an audience of consumers, watching the competition between these new digital tools in the marketplace. Does the world need tablets? Ereaders? VR? Google Glass? A gaudy and expensive Apple Watch or a cheaper one? Fitness tracking rings? Sleep mats that measure heartrate and sleep depth/length?
When someone we know buys one these newfangled digital realm things, we watch them out of the corner of eyes. We listen to their anecdotes. Is this something we want? We weigh the monetary costs, the temporal costs, and the change such inventions will put on our workflows. Is it worth it?
It’s a strong pull, and it hasn’t lost power, even though the Paperless Movement is a past age. That’s why it’s interesting to look at analog objects that were and still are at the mercy of our always upcoming digital land, the objects that have yet survived.
Sometimes it’s nice to know some things will remain solid.
All this digitization, this compression of physical objects into algorithms housed in smaller and smaller metal components, made me think that a loaded stack of sticky notes was a potential waste of the environment rather than a colorful squat tower of potential.
Plus, they are eerily expensive.
It was a couple of years ago, long after the Paperless Movement waned that I shrugged off my vacuumed world of digital bips and bops and arrived, like superman landing with a super-sonic boom, back in sticky note land. A perpetual sticky note autumn now exists in my work environments.
Pry off a sticky note and examine the sticky hinge: you can barely see the muted shimmering rectangle. And though you pry off a note, you may place it back. You may unstick the stick. That is its repeatable nature.
I have sticky notes on my classroom computer monitor that have been there for than a year. The usual classroom menace that fells posters and whatever else teachers hang on the walls, humidity, has tried its best. The sticky has won. No curling. No thinking of entropy whatsoever.
Yellow is the color of the highly prized golden child of the stationery world: the legal pad. A sticky note mimics the legal pad’s axis and layer-ability. It’s got the legal pad’s color and practicality. But when you tear a sticky note from its stack, it becomes its environment.
It’s true power: simplicity. It is the Lego of office products. Is it a bookmark? a reminder? a letter? a piece of feedback? a checklist?
Paper, a basic building block of stationery, hardly comes with “features” that excite. We don’t really need paper that is rewritable or paper that can be eaten or a paper that can be folded into a water bottle. We need paper. Maybe paper bound together. Maybe paper that isn’t so flimsy. Maybe paper that you can temporarily paste on top of your keyboard so that when you sit down to start the day, there is nothing but to confront the fact that your past self wanted you to fill the kettle before you start the day.
You always forget.
An important lesson I learned during my student-teaching days was this: if you get a stapler, make it a metal one.
As a first-year teacher, I didn’t have much. Some hand-me-down stuff from previous occupants of the classroom and some stuff my new colleagues were trying to get rid of. So, I had to make do with my first school supply purchase with my limited school funds.
When the two plastic staplers arrived, I tried not to think of my mentor teacher’s dictum pertaining to the materials that made up a stapler. Surely the plastic they made nowadays was made to last.
The staplers weren’t the only idealistic things that shattered that year. Not only did the plastic crack, but the staples themselves kept getting pushed together, almost melding into one garbled piece of metal, blocking all chance of a single staple making its way into paper. Here is what is wrought with the fist of teenagers.
I myself was at least stronger than a plastic stapler. Barely.
My second year, I purchased two metal staplers. I laminated a sliver of paper with my last name printed in crisp Helvetica font and affixed it, with shipping tape, to the top of each stapler.
For most of my teaching career, these two hardy metal staplers survived. Then one disappeared. This was okay. They had become heirlooms. Digital life had lessened their need. Now copiers staple as a pretty basic feature. I at least knew the stolen one still lived. And the one I still had, it was in semi-retirement.
A couple years ago, almost post-summer, I came back to ready my classroom and could not find my heirloom metal stapler. Someone had taken it and had never returned it.
I shot out a school-wide email, careful not to word it this way: “Have you seen my stapler?”
No one had seen it.
One kind soul offered me theirs. And though it was plastic, it was kindly given, so I took it. And, really, metal staplers are like $1,000 now.
Maybe in the future, there will be hipster stapler blogs where we will all celebrate the wonders of a good stapler, where we will ogle the quality of metallurgy in differing staple brands and the shape of their curve as they are squashed by metal templates—the artisanal way we apply force, debating the merits of the angle of a staple in a stack of paper.
The plastic stapler now sits behind my desk. I don’t let students use it without my supervision. I miss the days when you could really chomp your fist down on a stapler and not worry about the integrity of things.
The binder clip might be the last bit of highly indestructible stationery yet still in popular use.
Yes, the staple and the paperclip, they are metal too. But, really, if you were to be stranded on an island in a stationery apocalypse, which would you choose?
The thing that staples do well is transmutation. They become the thing that they are affixed to. This is not a permanent state. With something as simple as the right fingernail length, you can remove a staple and make paper loose-leaf again.
Previously stapled paper functions much like its pre-chomped-down state. It’s not turning into vampire paper or anything, tainted for its lifespan, a sort of magical virus infiltrating its two holes, remnants of metal fangs.
But when a staple is fastened, it’s official, even though a staple goes through no compositional changes. Once through the paper, it simply hugs it.
A paperclip embraces paper without biting it. Thicker than a staple. Blunt. But like the staple, paperclips are bent to serve.Once twisted out of shape, one can use that wee-in-diameter piece of circular metal to retrieve SIM cards, to get pocket lint out of your phone’s charger port, or to reset modems and routers.
A paperclip is frustration relief. It’s technical aid for unreachable things.
You can open accidentally-locked suburban interior doors, whose designers apparently didn’t think of the paperclip or, brilliantly, saw it as a feature, meaning that you’d never have to call the locksmith from the inside of your own home.
Yes, paperclips morph into other tools. But have you searched YouTube for “binder clip hacks”?
With their pawn-like metal wings and their infinitely ready-to-chomp-down jaws, they are the crocodiles of the stationery waterways.
They traverse worlds. They look good in a modernist setting—plain lines and minimalism galore. They also look pretty good clamping down watercolor art to wooden backings or supplying the crux for a hipster PDA, which is probably still a thing. They serve as magazine bookmarks and a cord management ingredient.
My favorite use is its original use: binding paper together.
Boring, yes, but a binder clip can be the solution to boredom: a fidget tool.
Manufacturers still make binder clips like they used to. They are immortal and are probably holding together some very important piping systems or maybe a skyscraper or two.
This is the small thing that archaeologists from 1,000 years in the future will dig up and overlook and then realize, this thing is mighty.
The red pen is the pen of conversation.
It used to be the only way various types of readers communicated directly with a writer’s work, or the way writers communicated with their own work.
But, of course, the red pen first comes to us through admonishment or praise: it is the choice tool for checkmarks, minuses, pluses, letters “A” through “F”—excepting “E.”
If our first confrontation with the red pen was in school, it may not have been pleasant, though their use obviously comes from the stark contrast between black text and red annotation. (The social media people figured this out.)
It is necessary to note that red pens share the aura of one of our most important traffic signs. What other color can command such a serious halt to our progress? It is difficult to halt any human’s will, but red does it.
Perhaps it’s because the color red is steeped in extreme. We “see red” when we are angry. When we are hurt, it is red that we see.
Some teachers have switched to purple for a less harsh denotative contrast. But red is still wonderful: we love it in roses; it is the color of symbolic hearts; it is the color of a strawberry.
Like fire, red can be held in the mind as both destroyer and creator.
No one hates a stop sign. It creates order just as much as it stymies motion.
In the stationery world, black letters reign and yellow has found its purpose as the color of imbuing our words with potence—one cannot help but think of sunlight shining on words or the glow of an open treasure chest. Red is the editor’s color. The color that is the teacher of everything else.
There is probably nothing more hipster than still using wooden pencils as a non-artist.
I’m not going to make the claim that wooden pencils are somehow better than mechanical pencils, or that society has made a terrifying blunder in moving on from wooden pencils, or that I haven’t followed and shopped at that NYC shop, the recently RIPed CW Pencils.
I will simply say that the smell of a wooden pencil is one part nostalgia and one part this ineffable feeling one gets when they get a whiff of nature while apart from it. Like what various candles attempt to do with scents like “Cut Grass,” “Pine,” or “Dew.”
To sharpen a pencil is to unlock the smell of the woods of its origin. Nothing else, really, creates such potpourri in its leavings.
(Actually the smell is so striking that they’ve made—and here you must forgive the title of it—a scent out of it. [You probably shouldn’t forgive the title of it.])
Liking something for smell may seem suspect. But we often forget that our body is a tool for the mind itself, translating the world with five senses.
Wooden pencils engage one more sense than mechanical pencils, and one more sense than anything digital. Print book people will know what I’m talking about.
Since youth, I’ve also come to love the smell that a pillow gets after months of sleep. Do you still trust me?
On top of the smell, there is ritual. Which is the reason why the mechanical pencil is currently winning. Only nerds like ritual if it can be helped. Sharpening a pencil is a nice break. A way to pass the time in the midst of work. People discount breaks, but breaks heighten output, creativity, space, time, etcetera. Science is on my side here.
Steinbeck and Roald Dahl both began their workdays sharpening pencils. And I’m sure many ended work by sharpening pencils for the next day.
Lastly, in a world of increasing preciseness, it’s nice to wield something not entirely predictable. You can’t have the qualities of a pencil without a little bit of messiness in its use. One must constantly rotate a wooden pencil to keep up with the shape of the point, which means being a tad mindful of a pencil’s natural line variation.
Who doesn’t like working with a bit of chaos? Chaos is life. Embrace it.
What I’m really trying to say is that pencils are like candles. But no one will believe me.
One would think that if pencil sharpeners had instruction manuals, they’d all be the same. But to really mimic the sharpening of a wooden pencil with the most basic method—a knife and a pencil—one needs a sharpener with more than one step.
I didn’t understand the two-stage sharpener until I was far too old to not know better. I was blinded by the encroaching digital world, my brain not ready for the mechanical tricks that the analog world had thought up and made normal decades before my existence.
A two-stage sharpener has two circular cones, not one. The two cones look imperceptibly similar, and the blades are the same size, but each cone, though fairly close in exactness, lacks parity. One cone, or stage, provides a narrower opening, allowing the blade to shave the wood from the lead to create a cylindrical piece of lead that resembles chapstick that has been pushed all the way out of its container.
The other cone is for the lead alone, creating a massive tornado of a point that will outlast anything any sort of one stage sharpener could ever do.
The best of these is KUM’s Masterpiece. It is well named. Over the course of my life, I’ve replaced more pencil sharpener blades in this thing than shaver blades.
Besides the name, it thinks itself so important as to come with a case. It is right.
This is not to diss the one stage sharpener. All sharpeners have their utility, their thoughtfully designed pros and cons.
One of the most iconic one stage sharpener, the wall pencil sharpener, has pros that can seem opaque to the modern eye. Its sturdiness is its first pro: the parts it is made out of and its connection to a wall. Other sharpeners are easily lost, easily filled to the brim with wood and graphite shavings, if they even have a receptacle at all.
A wall sharpener is for the masses. Its location resides in our evolutionary memories, for we know instinctively where one is the moment we go into a classroom. It is the metaphorical blacksmith of the education world. The sound it creates is both nostalgic and utterly disruptive.
At home, partly out of laziness and partly for wanting to have the pencil smell close at hand, I keep an old tea cup on a table next to my reading recliner. In it are mostly pencil shavings.
When you have sharpened a pencil, there is a moment of scrutiny where you examine the closeness of the shave, the smallest strings of leftover wood still clinging, the perfect grey blackness of the point. A transformation has occurred, and there is nothing left but to see where it will take you on the page.
Envious of some teachers’ podiums, but aghast at the costs and ugliness of many sold online, I decided to build a cheaper version with two-by-fours.
The design, because of the two-by-fours, was very much easy-peasy. But with materials at the ready, I realized it was easier for my amateur carpentry skills to build a standing desk than to work out the angles for a podium.
The desk that I built is perfectly catered to my height. And because I was feeling fancy, I stained it a nice dark mahogany. It’s weird how a good stain can mask a mostly two-by-four skeleton.
When I brought it to school, I was like, “Yes.” And then I realized that when I wrote on its surface—on a single piece of paper—the wood became indented with what I had just written.
When you spray-paint stuff, you use cardboard for a backing. Singers sometimes need a backing to sound fuller, to harmonize. Training wheels, though I think they have come into disfavor, are a sort of backing. The rope used for rock climbing and mountaineering is a backing. A house can be symbolically squeezed into this definition of a backing. And paper, with its engineered flimsiness, needs a backing even when you aren’t pressing the points of pens on it, just consulting what is written thereon.
This is why clipboards still reign.
What used to be a clamp to a flat plane is now more of a Swiss Army Knife: one part clamp for paper, one part clamp for writing utensil, and one part hook to hang. These are the non-fancy clipboards. You can now get clipboards that will store paper, utilize the power of magnets for various cool things, or store more than one writing utensil. You can get clipboards constructed out of time-capsule-worthy metal.
The most copied form of the clipboard, with the backing made of some sort of very sanded and compacted wood, is still gloriously adequate. Though made of cheap materials, the backing almost feels like a whole and natural thing, like some sort of relation to the cork tree.
A clipboard can be a camping tool. As the sun goes down, you can use it to prop up a journal, and when you light the fire, simply wave it and watch the flames rise.
A clipboard is also an office fan.
If you coach sports, you can pace with a clipboard as a thinking crutch during a game. Glance down at your notes or plays and use the clipboard to cover your mouth so the cameras don’t see what play you are calling into your oversized headphone system.
If you are a doctor or a nurse, you don’t even need your light blue or white uniform to show how professional you are when you walk into the examination room with a pen hovering over a clipboarded chart.
Perhaps the clipboard started the you-can-work-without-a-desk movement, like being able to check your work email on your smartphone right when you wake up. You know, that sinister, invasive type of work-from-anywhere.
Or maybe clipboards freed us from our desks, saving our postures, allowing us to work on the go. That little innocent step of technological innovation without the taste of novelty or selling out, without the extravagant capitalism of say wi-fi lightbulbs or two-wheeled hoverboard things.
People often have a bunch of writing utensils lying around, shoved into couches and car gloveboxes. I say to you, have clipboards spread out amongst your most frequented spots. Everyone needs support.
The Paper-ish Movement
Paper moves on. Perhaps not in the forms of yore—the romantic sheafs of parchment, papyrus, and thick rag-made stock—but paper will endure in other needful ways. No matter what paper is made from, it will still be a tool for marks we want to make on this world.
And because it is no longer practical to make our marks in the sand, in the dirt, we shall make them in the digital bips and bops that hang over us and also on the sturdy earthliness of a piece of paper.
Paper is never without its accoutrements. These paper-paired tools I detail here are able to withstand the shocks of the office world and also the generally weird, uncouth, and destructive ways that humans use things.
And like metal hammers with wooden handles are a symbol of our merged history of tool technology, the digital bips and bops will meld with a Paper-ish Movement far into the future.