Although this piece starts in the garden, that’s not where it will remain for long. At the start of every growing season, we gird ourselves for another battle with the evil and tenacious weeds which threaten to engulf our vulnerable crops, so we jumped at the opportunity to attend a workshop a few weeks ago devoted to strategies for keeping the weeds at bay. The recommendation was to turn the soil over in your plot, spread compost, lay down a thick layer of newspaper, followed by a layer of burlap (our garden has an abundant supply of those sacks) and finally top it off with a layer of straw or hay, largely for aesthetic reasons.
It’s that newspaper layer that I want to zero in on. When we were tending our oversize garden in New Hampshire we were in the habit of laying down large quantities of newspaper to ease the burden of mid-summer weeding. It was only later that we were told that the ink used in newspaper printing contained lead, so we may have inadvertently knocked a few points off our daughters’ IQ scores. As a result, when we resumed gardening, first in Houston and later in Chicago, we suspended using newspapers in our weed control campaigns. Now we’ve learned that there is no longer any lead in the ink. Instead, it has been displaced by some material made of that ubiquitous soy which is already a part of almost everything we eat. In any case, using newspaper as mulch is back in play.
The problem is that hardly anyone has newspapers to press into use anymore. The move to online subscriptions does not yield any physical byproduct that’s of practical use to gardeners. The erosion of the old ways is evident all around us. The delivery guy used to drop off papers for six or seven people in our building; now there is only one other holdout besides us. When my wife asks her graduate classes who reads print newspapers, no hands are raised. Even our own daughters have mostly abandoned print.
Fortunately, our retrograde ways include hanging on to our print subscriptions, not only for the daily arrival of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, but for mail delivery of papers from New Hampshire and Houston, places where we came to rest for long enough stretches to interest us in the local obituaries, as well as the floods and snowstorms that continue to complicate people’s lives, as they did ours. As a result, we were able to load up several Trader Joe’s bags with pre-read papers (if cars can be pre-owned, why not this classier label for papers which would otherwise simply be labeled trash?) There was even enough to share with some of our digitally oriented neighbors in adjacent plots in our community garden.
I can trace my addiction to paper and ink newspapers to my earliest years. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again in this context. As a child, I looked forward to my father’s daily return from work, not only because I loved him but because he came bearing the gifts of whatever discarded newspapers he scavenged on the train bringing him home from work. It was a time when there were enough readers in New York to support seven or eight dailies – the Times, the Post, the Journal-American, the Mirror, the Herald Tribune, PM, the Daily News. Some had their special roster of comics, some were just unyielding pages of text. As my interests broadened, I looked forward to the days that brought the Post or the News with their promise of a few photos of lightly clad women. Only the Times, the Post and the News survive of those early giants. The Mirror went under when their sales dipped below a million!
When I was in the seventh grade, the Times in its infinite wisdom hired student sales representatives to hawk its wares for a reduced price, so my classmate Jonathan Cohen was, in effect, the dealer who hooked me for life. As a commuter in high school and college I had to learn the basic survival skill of how to fold the paper into its narrowest form so it could be read in tight places. The brotherhood of Times readers looked down on the lowly tabloid readers whose papers did not require origami skills to make them readable in the subway.
Later, I encountered situations which should have shaken my loyalty to the Times. During our years in Mississippi, we were witness to events that were reported inaccurately in what we had considered the infallible chronicle of world events. Perhaps the information we were absorbing from Pakistan and Borneo was also inaccurate? But true faith is not easily eroded, and I soon returned to a more accepting and uncritical stance, at least for a time. Now there are multiple sources of information against which the Times reports can be checked. The past four or five years have made us question our faith in the reliability and accuracy of all media so the Times is not alone as a target of our skepticism, but I’m going to continue to feel incomplete if I haven’t read the whole unwieldy thing from end to end by bedtime.
Reading the newspaper in its print form engages me on more levels than the intellectual. It’s a sensory and sensual experience as well. Seeing how the stories are arrayed on the page and across the whole daily issue pleases me in ways that are a good match for the way my brain organizes information. Reading the same stories digitally feels fragmented, each one isolated in its own shell. I like the feeling of having all the day’s doings in my hand at once with permission to move through it in whatever order I choose. Habituated digital readers may be able to replicate that feeling, but the grooves cut by the old ways of interacting with the physical paper are deep and irreplaceable. Some readers of my ilk claim to like the smell of the newsprint and ink. Many of these same folks prefer physical books for the same reason. My sense of smell isn’t finely enough attuned to pick up those signals; my pleasures are more visual and tactile, though I do also like the crackling sound of the turning pages which some digital producers have tried to replicate on the computer.
I know my brigade is fighting a rear-guard action. Soon enough the delivery crews, the contemporary equivalent of long-ago newspaper boys, will be gone, driven off by the declining demand for their services. Eventually, the physical paper itself will disappear as is already the case with some of the newspapers we subscribe to. I hope none of that comes to pass until I’m gone. Meanwhile I’m going to enjoy the hell out of spreading those pre-read pages on my garden, adding the pleasure of reading to the satisfaction of knowing it is also helping me eat well. As woodstove users like to say, wood warms you twice, once in the cutting and once in the burning.