On the rise and fall of bookshelves

I sit in my office, surrounded by piles of paper. File cabinets filled with paper. Scrapbooks with years of photographs. Hundreds of books. Three-ring binders with reports and scripts and research. Mail, both unopened incoming and not-ready-to-be-sent outgoing. Baskets full of magazines. Drawers full of notebooks and blank stationery awaiting a purpose.

Downstairs, there’s a cupboard filled with stacks of recipes torn from newspapers and magazines. Scores of food magazines. A whole shelf of cookbooks.

Today’s newspaper sits on the table. Yesterday’s paper sits in a pile, awaiting recycling. Tomorrow’s paper is being designed even as we speak.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world without all this paper. Whole industries are driven by the concept of paper (publishing, newspapers, the U.S. Postal Service, scrapbook companies, office printers and copiers).

But it hasn’t always been this way. And it won’t always be this way either.

Long ago, cavemen painted on cave walls, a long-lasting way to save information but not portable. Stone tablets were portable, but impractically heavy. Ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus roughly 5,000 years ago, and most sources credit the Chinese with the invention of paper made from wood fibers around the time Christ was born. With the invention of paper, humans wrote letters to share information (think of all the letters written by St. Paul to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, etc.). With the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, making copies became easy, thus newspapers and books.

Of course, since God created human beings with mouths and tongues (and functional brains, at least most of the time), we shared information without paper. Those wall-painting cavemen shared their history orally, probably around the tribal fire pit. Eventually, there were town criers, telephones, radios, televisions and computers.

And now we can share information with web pages on cell phones and electronic books on Kindles and Nooks. We’re moving to paperlessness again, at least paper of the wooden variety.

Next stop: Electronic paper. E-paper.

Imagine a sheet of paper. The “writing” is not ink, but electronic images, like your computer screen — infinitely changeable and updatable. It’s as thin and light and portable as a sheet of paper. You can fold it or crumple it or roll it up and tuck it behind your ear. Read the news on it on your way to work (in your hovermobile), check out the company sales numbers (assuming you don’t work for a publishing company or a paper mill, of course), receive an agenda for a morning meeting, read a book over lunch, pay a bill, share a family photograph, catch up on Facebook, enjoy your friend’s blog, prepare dinner from a recipe and read the game summary, all on that single piece of e-paper.

Cavemen didn’t need file cabinets and bookshelves, and eventually, neither will we.

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