Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Essay: Why technology will never replace physical paper and textbooks for me

I’ve always loved going to old book sales. There’s something about seeing the crease in the spine and the smell of the pages, knowing that someone else could have held the same text, absorbed the same information and shed tears over the same story. I love that you can bring a physical book with you anywhere, reading and turning each page until you turn over the back cover.

The digital age has certainly lessened the prevalence of physical books, particularly in academic settings, where laptops have monopolized note taking. Technology as an educational tool has brought an unprecedented level of convenience to students. The days of restarting an entire page because of a typo on a typewriter are long gone. I can’t even imagine writing a research paper without browsing Google or leafing through primary and secondary sources via the search key. Almost every textbook is now available online at the click of a button. Yet, this great blessing of convenience has been more of a double-edged sword for me, longing for the once paper-dominant world to return.

When I started college, I got a bigger backpack to carry all the textbooks I might need. To my surprise, that bag’s purpose would remain unfulfilled during my first semester. Once I figured out that online textbooks would be the only way to avoid spending hundreds on required materials, they seemed more appealing. But once I started buying them, I suddenly hated reading – nothing felt rewarding about being hunched over my computer with burning eyes for hours on end. I missed feeling the pages flip over my fingers, holding the book open and feeling the collection of pages shift from right to left with every turn. But I wasn’t just missing that feeling of personal achievement – it felt like I could never focus. Because of my computer, I was constantly accessible – even “do not disturb” couldn’t prevent me from seeing my email inbox slowly fill up, increasing both my to-do list and stress levels.

This semester, I learned from my mistakes and invested in physical textbooks for the classes that offered them. This decision would have amounted to just under $200 if I had not borrowed a friend’s old textbooks. At last, reading no longer feels like a dreadful burden while my burning eyes gloss over seemingly meaningless words. I’ve always been an annotator, so I focus more easily with physical books or papers. Being able to highlight and write in a book as I follow along makes the process go by much faster for me and increases the amount of information I retain.

Despite taking my notes by hand, most of my peers use computers in every class. In lecture halls with 270 students, all I can hear is the clacking of keyboards. I already sit in the front of the classroom to make sure I can hear the professor, but it’s still difficult to focus when the typing becomes surround sound as I jot down notes with a pen and paper. I become anxious when I hear people typing around me when I’m not writing – what am I missing? I waste time feeling unnecessarily anxious while my peers are likely typing something completely unrelated to the lecture like homework for their next class or a crossword puzzle.

I wish every day that I didn’t need physical books or handwritten notes to absorb information or to focus – it is detrimental to my bank account and the environment.  I could save nearly $150 by taking notes on my computer, renting online textbooks or using library resources. I go through at least one notebook and an endless amount of pencils and erasers for every course I take. Nearly all of my professors assign additional online articles and research papers, and I print every single one of them out to annotate them. I’ve already had to buy filing boxes to store the numerous notebooks and printed articles so I can use them to write my final essays. And they aren’t free – GW only provides us with $30, or 500 black and white double-sided pages of printing credits for an entire year, which I went through before last semester ended.

I feel a lot of guilt about how much paper I print. Not only am I spending money, but there’s an environmental cost to my actions. The sheer amount of pollutant-emitting machinery and water necessary to create paper has made the paper industry the third-largest emitter of global warming in many industrial nations. But the problem isn’t just the detrimental effects of manufacturing the paper. We need trees. The Amazon Rainforest, a major carbon sink holding an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon, will likely be annihilated by the year 2064. Between renting used books and recycling old paper materials, I take every avenue possible to lessen this environmental harm. But I still hate knowing that I am a contributor in that process. Paper is simply vital to my learning style.

I don’t think technology will ever replace paper for me. With a computer, you get notifications, advertisements and sounds. You become accessible at every point in the day. Paper is special. It forces you to slow down and step away from life and its distractions. It’s a physical reminder of everything you have accomplished in reading and every possibility left in the pages. And for that, I will always choose paper.

Isabella Soileau, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is an opinions writer.

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