Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Romance of Paper

My doomsday title of yesterday's post ("The End of Paper") sent my most loyal reader (well, the most loyal commenter for sure) scurrying for an article she read in a publication in defense of paper. Now, I'm sure paper will survive. Print is becoming, however, a companion to bits and bytes and sound waves. I read the actual newspapers on the exercise bike while glancing up at the five television they provide at the gym. (I rarely plug into the sound, just looking at stock quotes and those handy running news feeds.) When I find something interesting in the actual New York Times like I did yesterday, I can refer you to the online article. I can e-mail it to people, too. And I can save it, electronically, in a sort of virtual clip file.

As I sort through books, unable to give up a (too large) number of them, I go down rabbit holes of reading. The above scan is of the cover of a book I bought some years ago in a second-hand store. I read it and found it intriguing because this escaped German POW who turned himself in forty years later got this book published before turning himself in. When I got this book, probably around 1993, online research was in its infancy. So I never found out the story's end...what happened when he turned himself in. I lent the book to my dad in 2001 to read and then stumbled on it in 2003 again while looking for books for him to read. Then I did some research with the Internet capabilities of ten years later. Here is an excerpt from my 2003 journal about that:

I started collecting first person accounts from World War II over twenty years ago. I picked up a book (Howard K. Smith's Last Train from Berlin) at my in-laws' house and read it. It was so interesting reading abuot events just before I was born and seeing the events through the eyes of one person in the vortex of history. The story had such individual urgency and yet the events were sweeping the whole world along. I went to the secondhand book stores and searched out similar books. A lot of them were like this copy of Smith's book. They were printed during the war or just after and were now old and musty, especially since the best quality paper couldn't be used. There were stories by refugees and journalists, foot soldiers and pilots, resistance fighters and civilians in the way of war. There were harrowing accounts of concentration camps, POW camps, fox holes and war rooms. There were touching accounts of lives touching, caroming off and spinning away from each other forever. Sometimes I felt that a big patchwork quilt of a story was being told to me, adding up to something like the truth. If truth is chaos and confusion. Sometimes the stories touched, recounting the same event from two sides or the people actually met.

About ten years ago I picked up a more recent book that still fit the genre. I bought it at Half Price Books for $2.98. It was published in 1985. The book was Hitler's Last Soldier in America by Georg Gaertner with Arnold Krammer. Georg was a member of Rommel's Afrika Corps and was captured and sent to New Mexico. He escaped from the POW camp in 1945 when the war was over. He was afraid of being repatriated into Russian hands. He lived without detection until 1985 when he published a book. The book implied that he would turn himself in, in conjunction with the publication.

As Dad and I talked about the book, I told him that I'd never found out what happened to the guy when he turned himself in. It had been a while since I'd tried to search and I'd never been that serious about it. I had tried the Internet once, I think, a few years ago. I gave it another shot and found the resume of the co-author, a professor at Texas A&M. I clicked on his e-mail and told him about buying the book and wondering. He wrote back in short order. Amazing. I printed his e-mail and put it in the book.

Georg's story is so improbable. You live in Germany, there is a war, you end up in the U.S. living a life. Your hometown is now in Poland. Life goes on for forty years and then you admit that you are not just a ski instructor, tennis player and amateur painter, but this last unaccounted for POW.

But everyone's history is interesting when you dig into it and see what happened and how and when. How some things seemed to be choice and some events just steamrolled the person. And how the generatons come and go, considered less than you might think by children and grand children.

Yesterday I found the book again. I was pretty sure I'd keep it, but I decided to see how easy it would be to replace if I didn't. This is something I often do. I'll say "yeah I might read this some day" and then I'll see that I could get one secondhand on the Internet easily. So I'll give it away and figure I'll buy one if I ever want to read or reread it. Well, Georg Gaertner's story wasn't that available. Powell's offered to let me know if they got one. A couple of dealers offered them at high prices. I decided to keep it. The e-mail from his writing collaborator is printed on paper and tucked inside. The reason I scanned the cover is so that my Library Thing bookshelf could show the cover. (By the way, on Library Thing, four other people have cataloged the book.)

As I sort through the books some have wonderful covers, beautiful paper (although the WWII era ones alluded to above are on awful wartime paper) and great inset pictures. It's hard to beat the experience of a book. Or a newspaper. I still like to fill in the crossword on the newsprint even though I have access to the fancy online crosswords.

The end of paper? No, paper and pixels will blend. Your book will come with a WEB page. As most do today. You will research things online and then buy an obscure book from a store across the country or find out online that it is in your library down the street or across town.


deb said...

Haha, still looking for the article. It's point was that for maintaining records, paper is still the best medium. Lasts for nearly ever and remains readable. Will you still be able to read computer files that you saved to 'floppies' in 50 years? The article also mentioned something about either a government agency or a large university, or something, frantically transferring computer files back to paper for future use.

Linda Ball said...

Well, I can't go through your paper files for you but I'm pretty sure I read similar things in The New York Times. In fact, I located a couple of articles online and I'll talk about them tomorrow. Of course, it is worse than not being able to read the stuff on floppies...often it is in a format for a program you can no longer execute.

deb said...

Precisely. I'm afraid that future generations will find huge gaps in necessary historical information.

I have given up looking for the article after quickly browsing about 50 issues. It'll show up some day!

Forrest Preece said...

Note the next to last paragraph.

Ryan has a lock on it.

deb said...

Pity. There goes the company (grin).

There was a very successful restaurant in Dunedin, FL called 'Chief Charlie's'. Great steak, tacky live organ music. Son took it over and changed things. It was out of business within a year.

Yeah, I know, not the same.

Another article read many years ago about the downside of recycling...if we were to near 100% paper recycling we would do the environment severe harm. The paper company's forests are replanted to continually keep up with demand for trees to cut down. With no need to cut new trees, the company would not replant. And worse yet would likely sell the property for other use, probably commercial, and those former forests would be built upon and paved.

Can you tell what my day has been like?