'Lancelot and Guinevere' by Herbert Draper

From the Whistler

The Age of Paper

Once, many thousands of years ago, a kingdom called Ephemeria blossomed on the edge of a vast desert. The Ephemerians had developed a highly advanced civilization at a time when the rest of the world was still hunting with flint arrowheads and wearing animal hides. They passed through the usual phases of intellectual and technological growth—from farming to writing to guns and low-interest home mortgages. However, in one way they were singular. Because of the loca­tion of their kingdom, far away from any forests, the Ephemer­ians had not invented paper. Things were chiseled in stone, or drawn in the sand.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that Ephemeria devel­oped monitor technology, both LCD and plasma screen, at a very early age. Computers and network technology were invented, and for centuries all newspapers, magazines, novels, poems, as well as business documents and reference manuals, were accessed and read from monitors, which were referred to as “slates”. This was the way it had always been.

Then one day, while examining wood brought by explor­ers from forests across the vast desert, a brilliant materials sci­entist hit upon the invention of paper. Trade routes and an import/export business quickly developed, and suddenly, almost overnight, paper books began being sold in the mar­kets. What a sensation they caused! For unlike the shadowy texts read on slates, these books had  their own separate, phys­ical entity—they could be touched, and paged through, and put on shelves. Each book was possessed of its own unique identity—it could be only itself, and did not disappear when the slate was switched off. It could be of any thickness and shape. Its fonts were clearer and more varied, its colors richer. It did not need an energy source to be read, and could be taken anywhere. It was unchanging, and did not rely on servers or communication grids being up. The paper books could be written in and signed by authors, and when Ephemerians trav­eled in planes and the pilot commanded all electronic devices be shut down, readers of paper books could continue reading. In short, there were so many wonderful things about these paper books, and the newspapers and magazines that followed them into print, that they became all the rage. It became fash­ionable, especially among the Ephemerian youth, to eschew slates, and read only paper. Visionaries and pundits soon began referring to the era as The Age of Paper.

The traditional slate publishers tried to follow this rapidly unfolding paper technology, but because they were not materi­als scientists and did not have shops in the marketplace, they were far behind the paper curve, and began to panic. Fewer and fewer readers were subscribing to their slate publications, and slate advertising revenue was plummeting. Meanwhile, start-up paper publishers were raking in a fortune, and paper book stores and book clubs were burgeoning.

Concerned, the leader of Ephemeria decided to consult with Skepticus, an old hermit who was reputedly the wisest man in the kingdom.

“What is to be done about this new paper technology, Skepticus?” she asked, after she had reached his cave atop a lonely mountain. “How are we to keep our renowned slate tra­dition alive?”

“Fear not child,” the seer replied, patting her on the back in a grandfatherly way. “I can remember back a long time, and have seen many things come and go. This, trust me, is a fad. Consider. Are there not many valuable things a slate can do, which these new paper books cannot? You can instantly buy a text on a slate, for very little, rather than going to a paper book store and paying much more. You can search for words and phrases on the slate, and store many books, a whole room of paper books, in one of those new little computers that look like phones.”

“Actually, O wise one, they are phones...”

“Oh, right. Well, as I was saying, child: The slates too have their advantages. The world is large enough for both kinds of books. And what matter if a book be read on a slate or in print, if the subject is dull, the writing unimaginative? And if the book be worth the reading—my Golden Book of Aphorisms, for instance—it is worth reading on slate or paper. The medium is assuredly not the message, child.”

And so, after another generation, and the loss of some fortunes and the making of others, what Skepticus predicted came to pass. People began looking fondly back on the pre-paper world, and rediscovered their slates, and appreciated them for their cheapness and storage capacity—espe­cially with regard to reference materials like encyclopedias, which had been too voluminous and changeable to produce in paper anyway. And also they treasured their new paper books.

And the Golden Book of Aphorisms by Skepticus was available in both formats, and was read far and wide.

- Joel Van Valin