Two Sequels

There are two books I’ve been waiting for a long time. No, not The Winds of Winter or The Doors of Stone. I’m talking about two nonfiction sequels. As of today, one of them is in my hands. The other, I recently learned, is coming later this year.

Back in 1999, Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace published a massive history of New York City called Gotham. The book won the 1999 Pulitzer for history. I read the book in 2006 and I absolutely loved it. The 1,400 page book (the longest book I have read) covered the history of New York City from its founding until 1898. Somewhere, I learned that this was just the first of a series of books on the history of the city, and that a sequel was in the works. It took nearly 20 years, but I now hold that sequel in my hands.

Greater Gotham is not as long as its older sibling, coming in at a mere 1,200 pages. Yet, while Gotham covered centuries, Greater Gotham‘s 1,200 pages covers just two decades, 1899 – 1919. The book is just as beautifully done as the first, and I can’t wait to read it, although I fear it will be a while before I get to it. That’s okay. I’ve waiting 12 years. I can wait a little longer.

Back in 2005, I devoured Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, covering Bing’s life from his birth to just before the Second World War. That was another book for which a sequel was promised. I waited and waited. Now and then I searched message boards for hints of when the book might come out. There were always rumors. It was on; it was off; it was written, but there was no publisher, etc., etc. Then, after learning of Greater Gotham, I thought I’d search for “Gary Giddins” and see what came up.

What came up was Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. The book comes out in November, just in time for me to read on my winter vacation.

I’ve been looking forward to both these books for a long time. Now I have one, and before the end of the year, I’ll have the other. And I have a feeling that both will be worth the wait.

Speed “Reading”

I started listening to audiobooks five years ago. I wanted to read more. With an audiobook, I could read while doing other things: exercising, walking, driving, doing chores around the house. Since then, I’ve listened to nearly 200 audiobooks. The switch to audiobooks has allowed me add an additional 4,200 pages per year over my reading without audiobooks.

But I am still not entirely satisfied with how much I am reading. Every now and then, I see a statistic that puts me in my place. I recently saw some stat that claims Stephen King has read well over 10,000 books. King is older than me, of course, but even at my recent pace, I’d never make it to 10,000 books in my lifetime. About 18 months ago, I began listening to audiobooks at 1.25x speed. This allowed me to finish a book faster and squeeze more reading into the same amount of time. It required a minor mental adjustment, but I’ve since grown so used to it that 1x speed seems artificially slow.

Not long ago, I did some math. After seeing that Stephen King stat, I wondered what I could do to squeeze in more reading. What was in the realm of the possible, given the reality of my busy life? According to my data, the average time length of an audiobook that I read is about 19 hours. This translates roughly into 450 printed pages. What if I tried to commit to getting in 3-1/2 hours of reading every day?

The math told me that at that at a speed of 1.25x, a 19 hour audiobook can be listened to in about 15 hours. At a rate of 3.5 hours per day, I can finish a book, on average, once every 4 days, or so. Beginning in November, I put this plan into effect, with a good deal of success, as the chart from my Audible app below illustrates.

At that pace, in a full year, I should be able to get through about 90 average length books. I tend toward longer books, but all things being equal, I rounded that number to 80 books per year. That’s 800 books in a decade. Given that I’ve already got 720 under my belt since I started counting in 1996, and if I can hope for four more good decades, I can expect to read about 4,000 books. Still, nowhere near Stephen King’s number.

This weekend, I started reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, a massive 1,100 page volume, which, in terms of audio time is nearly 50 hours. I decided once again, to up the pace, and began listening to the book at 1.5x speed. I thought this would be too fast, but after a year and half at 1.25x speed, 1.5x did not seem so bad. About 20 hours into the book, and I’m completely used to it by now. Doing this required me to reevaluate my math to see how it impacts my reading in the long run.

At 1.5x, I can finish a 19 hour book in about 12-1/2 hours. At a pace of 3.5 hours per day, that’s a book every 3.5 days. This translates to about 100 books per year, 1,000 books per decade, and perhaps nearly 5,000 books in my lifetime.

At this point in my life, 3.5 hours of listening/day is my theoretical limit. There are days when I manage 4, 5, even 6 hours, but there are an equal number of days where I manage only 2 or 2-1/2 hours. I’m also skeptical that listening at a speed beyond 1.5x would gain me anything. I think at those speeds, my enjoyment, and understanding would suffer.

I’m content with these number, for now. It is the best I can do. But I do marvel at people who can read 10,000, or 15,000 books in a lifetime.

Essaying on Essays

I am reading E. B. White and thinking a lot about essays. Last week I read Essays By E. B. White. Today I am reading One Man’s Meat. White has rapidly become one of my favorite essayists, along with Andy Rooney, Al Martinez, John McPhee, and Isaac Asimov. One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays White wrote for Harpers in the early 1940s. Reading the book makes me wish I was an essayist, too. I suppose, to some extent, I am.

As a recent commenter pointed out on an earlier post, “semantic shift” is a fancy way of describing how the meaning of words change over time. “Post” has, in my mind, evolved into a kind of synonym for “essay” and since I’ve written more than 6,000 posts on this blog, I suppose I could make a legitimate claim at being an essayist.

I like the word essay better than post. One seems more formal than the other. Posts can often be little more than incoherent ramblings, where essays have structure and purpose. Someone like E. B. White is a master of the form, and though I’ve written thousands of essays, I feel like I am as far from being a master as when I started writing on the blog 13 years ago.

What strikes me as interesting is that the essays that I read by White, Rooney, Asimov, and others, don’t seem to follow the form of essay that I was taught to write in school. Back then, the Five Paragraph Essay was king. In the first paragraph you would state your thesis. In paragraphs two, three, and four, you would defend your thesis with argument. Paragraph four was to contain a counter-argument, which you could then rebut, e.g., “Some might argue that… however, when one considers…” The fifth and final paragraph was to restate your thesis. Except when a grade depended on adhering to the form, I’m not sure I ever deliberately wrote an essay like that. The five-paragraph form is to an essay what color-by-numbers is to art.

E. B. White occasionally described his struggles writing essays. So did Andy Rooney. Draft after draft would come through the typewriter until the result was satisfactory. Never great in the author’s mind, merely satisfactory. When I write fiction, I always write at least two, and often three drafts. However, when I write essays, it is almost always the first draft that goes out the door. I’ve often thought this is a bad habit to be in, but it’s a difficult habit to break. I often want to write more than one draft of an essay, but on those rare occasions when I do, they seem to lose some of their liveliness. I’ve learned to leave them alone. Maybe that’s why I wish I was an essayist, instead of feeling like I am one.

The Scantron Test

Sitting in the school carpool, waiting to drop off the kids, I said, “Good luck on the Scantron testing today.” It is Scantron testing week at their school, a time when students are urged to have a good breakfast before school each morning, presumably because that will improve their Scantron test performance.

“Thanks,” said one voice.

“We’re not doing it in first grade,” said the other.

“Scantron tests always bugged me,” I said. “I worried more about whether I was filling in the bubbles correctly than I did about selecting the correct answer.”

“We don’t fill in bubbles,” came the voice from the back.

“What do you mean?”

“The test is on the computer.”

This remark stunned me. I was only the honking of the cars in line behind me that brought me back to my senses. I pulled into the carpool lane, saw the kids off to their classes, and drove on. For the rest of the day, I brooded. How can a test be called a “Scantron” when it is computerized? Isn’t Scantron a portmanteau, combining “scanning” with the ubiquitous “-tron” that gives words a futuristic flavor. You fill in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, and the completed sheets are scanned through a machine, which records the correct and incorrect responses. There is no scanning involved when you take the test on a computer.

The drive back to the house took five minutes. I spent the entire time thinking about words that have lost their original meanings, as well as words that have been replaced by other, lesser words. As I was in the car at the time, I considered how I always liked the word “motorist” better than “driver” and “automobile” better than “car.” It occurred to me that “automobile” could make a comeback when self-driving cars hit the scene with regularity. “Self-driving” is awkward. But what we think of as a self-driving car is truly an automobile.

I prefer “motion picture” or just plain “picture” to “movie.” Movie has a slang feel to it. It is not the Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscar Awards each year. Going to see a picture sounds more glamorous to me than going to see a movie. I still refer to self-contained collections of music as “records” instead of “albums” or “playlists.” I would love to keep “banker’s hours” even though bankers no longer do.

I looked at Scantron’s website, and they are all about the digital age. It looks like they still provide the “Classic” version with the white and green sheets, but I suspect its use has waned. It makes sense that Scantron would keep up with technology changes. What bothers me, I suppose, is that what I know as Scantron no longer exists in the world my kids live in. It is one more sign of the relentless passage of time.

This phenomenon needs a name. What do you call a word that no longer means what it once meant? Probably there is a word for that, too. But what do you call the mechanism by which you see if a word no longer retains its original meaning? I think we should call this the Scantron Test.

An Astronaut’s Astronaut: John Young (1930-2018)

Here is the intro to a story that just about any science fiction editor I know would reject as too over-the-top:

In class that day, Mrs. Martin asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sarah Abby said she wanted to be a writer. Tim Norton said he wanted to be a teacher and a pop star.

“How about you, Mr. Young?” Mrs. Martin asked.

The boy stood up, and with cool eyes scanning his classmates, he said this. “I’m going to fly airplanes. And not just fly them. I’m going test them out. Fighter jets and experimental planes. I’m going to ride rockets into space. Not only that, but I’ll get out of the rocket and float around with the earth rolling by below me.”

Mrs. Martin was about to move on to Miss Zither, but the boy continued. “I’m going go the moon. Not once, but twice. I’m going to the be first person to orbit the moon all by myself. And I’m going to walk on the moon. I’m going to drive a car on the moon.

“And when we’re done going to the moon, I’m going to fly airplanes into space. I’ll be the first to do it. I’ll move up through the ranks until I am chief of the astronaut office. People will name highways after me.”

This implausible story might make a science fiction editor smile, but no one in their right mind would publish such an unlikely series of events. Of course, in this case, the unlikely events are all true. John Young, who died on Friday, flew six missions to space on three different types of spacecraft. He was the first person to sneak a sandwich on a spacecraft, the first person to solo orbit around the moon on Apollo 10. He was the 9th person to walk on the moon on Apollo 16. He commanded the first mission of the space shuttle Columbia, and flew a second mission on STS-9. He became Chief of the Astronaut Office after Alan Shepard retired. And snaking its way north and south through Orlando, Florida is Route 423, also known as the John Young Parkway.

I was less than a month old when Apollo 16 left pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on April 16, 1972, carrying John Young, Thomas K. Mattingly, and Charlie Duke to the moon. Almost a decade later, I was in third grade when Young commnded the first space shuttle launch. I remember being pulled out Mrs. Taft’s class to watch the launch. We slinked silently across the library of Cedar Hill Elementary school in Warwick, R.I. and into a classroom on the opposite side. A television had been rolled in on a cart for the purpose, and on that Monday morning in April, we watched the space shuttle roar to life, disppearing momentarily in an explosion of billowing white clouds, before climbing above them on three columns of orange fire. It wasn’t until much later that I learned we’d seen a taped version of the launch, a day later than the actual launch, which took place on a Sunday.

Young was an astronaut’s astronaut. I always admired him for the sense of hard work he seemed to convey. He was always preparing for a mission, whether it was one of the six he flew himself, or one of teh five others that he was assigned to as backup crew. His six missions were a record at the time–and let’s not forget that those six missions consisted of seven launches into space–he lifted off from the surface of the moon.

Young was the 9th man to walk on the moon. I have to imagine that, for the twelve men who walked on the moon, when they looked into the future, they saw themselves as the first twelve. In the future, they’d be the first of many. It is sad to me that, with Young’s passing, instead of 12 moonwalkers being alive today, only 5 remain: Aldrin, Bean, Scott, Duke, and Schmitt. This is a number that should be growing, not shrinking.

Reading in 2017

With 2017 in the books (pun most definitely intended), here’s a look at my reading for the year in comparison with other years going back to 1996.

2017 was my best year ever in terms of the number of books I read. The 58 books I read in 2017 smashed my previous 2013 record of 54 books. But in terms of total pages, I fell a little short of my all-time record for a year, with just under 23,000 pages. The average book length I read in 2017 was about 400 pages, and the average audiobook listening time in 2017 was about 15-1/2 hours. 6 of the 58 books I read were fiction, the rest were all nonfiction.

Best book of 2017

I read a lot of good books in 2017, but the book that stands out as the best one of the year, for me at least, is Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay.

Some other books I read in 2017 that I’d recommend to others include:

  • Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester
  • The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team In Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci
  • Red: The Life & Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow
  • Casey Stengel by Marty Appel
  • Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  • The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
  • Coming into the Country by John McPhee
  • Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen
  • Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
  • A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee

Reading in 2018

I am trying to step things up in 2018. Back in early November I did some math to figure how I might squeeze in more reading. Most of my reading these days is in audiobook form. My math told me that if I aimed for 3-1/2 hours of listening everyday, and if most of the books (nonfiction) I listened to at 1.25x speed in Audible, which is what I typically do for nonfiction, I could manage something on the order of 70-80 books/year depending on their length.

I used November and December to test out this theory. Whereas in previous months, I was lucky if I hit 60 hours of listening time in Audible, in November I hit 100 hours, and in December I hit about 108 hours. I finished 10 books in November and 10 books in December. I expect much of the same in January, where I’ve already finished one book so far, and expect to finish several others in the near future. Time will tell if I manage to pull far ahead of my previous years in terms of how much I read this year.

What I am reading now

I just finished re-reading my favorite novel, Stephen King’s 11/22/63I am about to start reading Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. I am also halfway through Jack McDevitt’s upcoming Academy novel, The Long Sunset. The book comes out in April, but Jack was kind enough to send me an ARC. I am partway through Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite. I am considering re-reading my second-favorite novel, Stephen King’s It. Also on tap for the near future: Personal History by Katharine Graham, Grant by Ron Chernow, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon S. Wood. There’s more but what I plan to read is often affected by what I am reading and things can change rapidly. Stay-tuned.

Watershed Moments In Writing

My biggest fear as a writer is that I will be boring. This is why I haven’t written much here lately. With so much being written these days, it sometimes seems like almost anything I try to write is merely echoing what someone else has already said somewhere else. Being a voice in an echo-chamber is not something I am particularly interested in. It’s why I write very little about politics, for instance. It’s why I’ve mostly stopped writing about writing, or productivity, or paperless. Those topics have carved deep canyons in the mountains of writing that have formed around the foundations of the Internet.

My desire to write, however, is surprisingly undiminished. I sometimes think it is what I was built to do. But how to do it without being boring? How to do it without putting readers to sleep, or merely echoing a thousand or ten thousand other voices? That is the problem I’m struggling with as 2018 opens.

There were three books I read in 2017 that have made me think quite a bit. The first was Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay. The second was Red: The Life and Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow. And the third was A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee. Notice a pattern? Something about the subject of these books attracted me immensely, and it took almost the entire year for me to figure out what it was. Call it my watershed moment.


The earliest writing I can recall doing for fun was in third grade–the same grade that my son is in today. Within the warmth of my New England classroom, on an otherwise cold and blustery winter day, we read about Moscow in our social studies books. For some reason, the descriptions in the book fascinated me, and I began to write a story about two friends who visit the Russian city. It is the first piece of fiction I can recall composing. This was no watershed moment, but it demonstrate, to my satisfaction at least, that I can legitimately state that my desire to write goes about as far back as I can remember.

The watershed moment came much later, sometime in 1993 I think. By this time, I was a junior in college, majoring in political science and minoring in journalism. I had powerful day dreams about being a published writer. I wrote and submitted stories to magazines as often as I could manage. I send lots and lots of terrible stories to Analog Science Fiction, the granddaddy s.f. magazine of them all. Because I was submitting stories, I thought of myself as a “real” writer.

One day, perhaps encouraged by one of my journalism professors, I joined the college newspaper and got an assignment to report on some small thing that I can no longer remember, but for which I’d need to interview someone in the administration building. I was 21 years old, busy writing papers, working in the dorm cafeteria, and of course, writing my stories. I walked to the administration building, decided that I really didn’t have time to work on the school paper, and dropped the matter.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot lately, especially having read three great books on writers and journalists. What would have happened if I have done the interview, written the article, and had it published in the school paper? Possibly nothing. Then again, it might have changed the entire course of my career. I may have become a journalist instead of going into IT. I’ve been very fortunate to work at the same great company for over 23 years, but today, looking back, a career in journalism seems so much more exciting. And the entire decision was made almost on a whim. In part, I think I made the decision because while I enjoyed day-dreaming about selling stories, I don’t think I actually believed I could do it. When I did start selling stories, I was more surprised than anyone.


I recently filled out a form to write for a site (professionally) that I have written for once before. One of the questions on the form was, “What makes your voice important?” The question gave me pause. In a way, it is the same question I have been asking myself for a long time, and it is why I haven’t been writing much here on the blog. Why is my voice so important compared to all the others out there? What I am I saying that they are not?

Then it occurred to me that there was an assumption built into the question. With that realization, I tried to answer honestly. I said, “I can’t say if my voice is important to others. That is something that readers have to judge. What I can say is that editors have told me that my writing has a good voice, both in fiction and nonfiction.” Perhaps not a unique voice, but a clear one that seems to put people at ease.

Having considered my answer for a day, I’d add that my voice is important to me. And this place is where I use that voice most frequently. I hope to use it more frequently than I have been lately. Perhaps in some alternate universes, I am a journalist, but for this universe, the voice that I have cultivated will have to do. And like a journalist, I’ll do my best to make what I write interesting, and to avoid being boring.

Adrift Upon the Reading Doldrums

Nothing frustrates me more than not being able to settle on what to read next. I have recently gone through a prolific period of reading, tearing through 14 books since November 1,and on pace to set a record for my best year since I’ve kept my list. On Friday, I finished reading the rather remarkable Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. And then, for some reason, I could not settle on what to read next.

I keep lists of books I want to read, but none of the books on my lists stirred desire. What followed was about 36 hours of frustrated floundering. Having finished Unbroken, my curiosity on Japan in World War II was piqued, and so I started to read The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland. But it turned out it wasn’t what I was looking for. I read the first 30 or 40 pages of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but the tone of the book was not what I expected. From there, things jumped around quite a bit. I tried Grant by Ron Chernow, a book I was really looking forward to, but   decided I was not ready for a long book. I started The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, but decided that I wasn’t interested in reading about a physicist at the moment.

I took a different approach and went back to topics that interested me recently. I started Alaska: A History by Claus M. Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, and then switched to Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, but neither felt right for the time. With remarkable chutzpah, I made my way through the first 150 pages or so of The Decline and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer before recalling that I really didn’t want to read a long book (and in this case, long being 1,250 pages).

Finally, I plucked Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage off my list and started that. That seems to have stuck, and I am enjoying the book quite a bit. Given that it has been cold here lately, I find it amusing that when Shackleton’s crew encountered a day in the Antarctic summer where the temperature reach a balmy 38 degree, they thought of it as a heat wave.

As we are preparing to head on our annual holiday vacation, I am stocking up on what I want to read over the course of the nearly three weeks I’ll have off work. In an effort to avoid these doldrums again, I picked out a few books that I think will go over well. For the long drive down to Florida, I’ve picked out A Christmas Carol, followed by Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennet. Also on my list for vacation: The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr.,  The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee. Perhaps then I’ll be ready for Undaunted Courage and Grant, both of which I am eager to read, once I am in the right mood.

For now, I’m just grateful I found my way out of these doldrums

My 5 Best Reads of 2017… So Far

With one month left in the year, and 48 books completed, here is my list of the 5 best I read in 2017 so far. This could change in the next month or so, although it would require a really good book to knock any of these five off the list.

  1. Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay
  2. Red: The Life & Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow
  3. Casey Stengel by Marty Appel
  4. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  5. Coming into the Country by John McPhee

Lots of good honorable mentions, but I’ll save those for closer to the end of December.

Upcoming Reading for November, December, and January

This time of year there’s usually two things in my mind when it comes to reading: what are the best books that I’ve read this year, and what will be reading next? (The last is always on my mind, to be honest.) I’ve seen a few “best books of 2017” lists already, and I always feel bad for writers whose books have yet to appear this year. It’s still too early for a “best of 2017” post in my mind, but how about what I plan on reading next?

I have recently discovered John McPhee. I’m a fan of essayists, and am especially fond of those who can do long-form nonfiction well. I have been delighted by his book Coming into the Country, which I plan on finished up today. I will likely follow that up with McPhee’s newest books, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. If that one goes well, then I might chance another McPhee book, this time Uncommon Carriers.

What else is on my to-be-read list?

The final season of Longmire recently debuted on Netflix. It is one of the few recent shows I’ve enjoyed, and I binged on it over the course of a week or so. Having finished it, I longed for more. Someone, I hadn’t realized that the show was based on a series of novels by Craig Johnson. So I figured I should give that a try, starting at the beginning with The Cold Dish.

Also on the list:

  • Endurance by Alfred Lansing
  • Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Grant by Ron Chernow
  • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  • The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan

The funny thing about these lists is that they often morph quickly. Reading Coming to the Country made me want to read more McPhee, for example. Reading Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World a few weeks back made me want to read about Marco Polo. There are plenty more John McPhee books, for that matter, and I may decide to go on a McPhee spree, if you’ll pardon the expression.

For me, the point is that, much like planning a vacation, I like to have more than one book queued up and ready to go, and this is the list I am currently working off of.

What’s on your list?

SSL Enabled on Blog

I’m a bit behind on this, but as of this morning, SSL is enabled on the blog. I believe everything is setup correctly so that http requests should automatically be directed to https, but of course, I may have missed a setting somewhere. In theory (and in my testing thus far) when you come to the site now, you should see the SSL icon in the address bar of your browser. Just wanted to mention this in case anyone noticed anything odd. For those who want, you can update bookmarks to https://www.jamierubin.net, but the redirect should get you to the secure version of the site, even if you don’t update anything.

Going Paperless: An Epilogue

In 2012 I began an experiment to see how much paper I could eliminate from my daily life. I was motivated by the elusive paperless office. Much discussed in the 1990s, I had yet to see an office that was truly paperless. The goal of my experiment was to see how far it was possible to go. It was not my intention to stop using paper entirely.

In April 2012, I wrote the first of what ended up being more than 120 posts on the ways I was using various digital tools—Evernote foremost among them—to go paperless. I called this series of posts “Going Paperless” to reflect my goal: that this was an ongoing process. I wrote these posts across several years, completing the last one in March 2016.

It recently occurred to me that these posts ended without any real conclusion. How did my experiment fair? How paperless was I able to go? What has happened since? This post provides those answers as a kind of epilogue to my going paperless experiment. I’ve drawn four conclusions from my experiment. As with all my going paperless posts, the conclusions are based on how I work. Here is what my experiment taught me:

  1. Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.
  2. Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.
  3. Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.
  4. Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.

1. Paperless works well for automated storage of infrequently accessed documents.

I find Evernote to be extremely useful for automatically storing stuff that I don’t look at very often, things like statements, contracts, bills, correspondence. Either by scanning these documents into Evernote, or better yet through some automated mechanism like FileThis, having these documents in electronic format saves me time, clutter, and physical space. That is a definite plus in the paperless column.

2. Paper works better as a short-term memory substitute.

I have tried countless apps, some of which I have written about over the years, that allow me to quickly capture notes that, for me, act as a substitute for short-term memory. Examples might include shopping lists, what needs to go into my kids’ lunches tomorrow, the office number on the 9th floor that I need to visit, an idea for a story that occurs to me while on a walk, the score of my kid’s soccer game, the RGB color code for a screen background, etc.

None of the apps I have tried for this have proven better than good old-fashioned pen and paper. For several years now, wherever I go, I have a Field Notes notebook and a Pilot G-2 pen in my back pocket. These notebooks serve as my short-term memory repository. When I fill up one, I have another ready to go.

Evernote, and other apps, have tried to make this easy, but the infrastructure surrounding these apps make it harder. It takes just a second to pull out my Field Notes notebook. To do the same in, say, Evernote, I have to pull out my phone, unlock my phone, start Evernote, wait, it the green plus button, optionally title my note, and start tapping away. With my notebook, I could be done by the time that Evernote is starting.

And it is not just Evernote. I’ve tried Apple’s Notes app, OneNote, Drafts, and many other note-taking apps. They are all the same in this respect. Then, too, Murphy’s Law dictates that the one time I really need to get something out of my head, my phone has no power. I don’t have to worry about that with my Field Notes notebook.

Also, these are, strictly speaking, ephemeral notes, there to remind me of things—a grocery list, the title of a book I want to look at, movie times, whatever. There’s no need to permanently store this information. That said, I do keep the completed Field Notes notebooks, and number them chronologically. Occasionally, I flip through them (something almost impossible to do in a tool like Evernote or OneNote) and it’s like a walk through what goes on inside my head.

3. Paperless works well for sharing documents with others.

One thing that is very hard to do with my Field Notes notebooks is share them with others. For one thing, I use a kind of shorthand I’ve evolved over the years that would make it impossible for most people to decipher what I’ve written—not out of any sense of privacy or security, but because I can record things faster that way. That alone makes it hard to share.

Evernote makes it easy for me to share documents with others, especially those in my family. Having a centralized place to access documents means that my wife can get them as easily as I can. We don’t have to worry about managing multiple copies, or which one is current. They are all stored in one place that we can both access.

4. Paper is more reliable as a long-term storage medium.

My experience going paperless has taught me that there are two aspects to reliability: (1) how reliable a medium is for entering information; (2) and how reliable a medium is for storing information.

Interestingly, I’ve found over the years that I will be more consistent about, for instance, keeping a journal, if I do it on paper. I’ve tried doing this in Evernote, and in Day One, but I’ve never been able to do it consistently, whereas when I kept a journal on paper, I went years without missing a single day. The thing about paper, in this case, it that it is a highly available user interface.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the second aspect of reliability: that of long-term storage. I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci and one thing that impressed me was the fact that something like 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks have survived to this day. 500 years later, we still have them. That is pretty remarkable to me. The journals I kept 20 years ago are still there on the bookshelf, collecting dust. I can’t find most of the journals I’ve kept in digital format, whether online, or not.

The desire to keep this information online stemmed from two ideas I had early on: (1) if my journals were online, I could access them anywhere, any time; and (2) I could more easily search them. It turns out, however, that I am much more likely to write in a journal consistently on paper than online. And it turns out that I rarely have a need to search. And when I do, I’ve learned ways of indexing my paper journals to make searches easier.

Given that my journals from 20 years ago, paper though they may be, are still safe and secure on my bookshelf, and electronic versions have gone the way of the Dodo, I’m inclined to think that we still have to prove the viability of long-term electronic storage. I have no problem keeping the types of information I put into Evernote there because, for the time being anyway, I have no worries about it going away. But I also export that data and back it up regularly in case it does go away. It would still be in electronic form, and that would be something I would need to manage going forward. And perhaps it will turn out that 500 years from now, like Da Vinci’s notebooks, the stuff we put online will still be there for eager historians to lust over.


My experiment proved to be a mixed bag. I found that going paperless was useful in some areas, but that paper was more useful in others. I suspect that is why that I still haven’t found that elusive paperless office. And I suppose—given my growing fondness for Field Notes and Moleskine notebooks, and the sound of a pen across paper—that I am glad. Paperless is good for saving time, decluttering, freeing up physical space. But still like paper.