It’s kind of scary. I mean, I know that Google Maps has everything recorded. Some family members recounted, a few years back, how they were shown raking the leaves in their yard on street level photographs. I guess everything’s part of your permanent record now. What was scary to me was receiving a letter with a picture of my house on the envelope. Yes, it was from an insurance agency, and insurance thrives on the feeling of vague threat that rattles around our primate brains most of the time. Is something or someone out to get me? Oh no! They know where I live! Maybe it was supposed to be friendly, like a good neighbor. It just didn’t come across that way. Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.
Not that being recorded doesn’t have its advantages. We live in an older house, and like most older houses it has had some additions over the decades. That means the roof is complex. That complex roof turned out to be leaky also. When the roofer was trying to explain why he couldn’t do just the one part where the water was getting in (we have been re-roofing on an installment plan), I had trouble imagining it. You see, when you’ve got neighbors all around it’s pretty tough to get the right angle to examine your own roof. I googled our address and shifted to satellite mode. I zoomed in and found the layout of the roof. Screenshot and save. Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have understood how complicated rain deterrence can really be.
But getting a letter in the mail with your own house on it—this seems to cross some kind of line. Yes, I like our place. I feel comfortable here. It’s got space for lots of books. It isn’t fancy, though. It still needs quite a lot of work both inside and out. And I like to spend my scant free time reading. It’s cheaper than buying all the lumber and tools I need to do things the way they should be done. Maybe if my job were driving around filming other peoples’ houses I’d make enough to have some contractor come in and fix things up. But the insurance agent knows where I live now. Covid-19 probably stops him from knocking at my door, but I do value my privacy. Like most things, being recorded is a mixed bag. Who couldn’t use a little extra anxiety once in a while?
I’m working on embracing the electronic age. No doubt it’s convenient. And fast! Publishing is, and always has been, a slow industry. As connoisseurs of anything know, quality takes time. This brings me to my paean to paper. I generally write these blog posts on a computer. That makes sense since they have to go onto the web and to do so they must be keyboarded. Many of them start, however, on paper. Sketching and free-flowing lines can become ideas, yet to draw on a computer you have to buy specialized (and expensive) equipment and software (which costs even more) to use it. You’ll lose months of you life learning how to use said software. In the end you’ll probably have forgotten, what? I forget.
The other day I ran into an author who wanted maps. In an electronic age the easiest way to get maps is to take them from the web. Google Maps seems innocent enough. Only it’s covered by copyright, and commercial use requires permission. As I went through the whole permissions process I was thinking of tracing paper. Copyright covers the execution of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Coastlines, rivers, and mountains added through the miracle of tracing paper become the copyright of the maker. (Don’t try this by rewriting written words through tracing paper—that doesn’t work.) Tracing paper’s old school. The illustrations in many older books used a similar technique. In A Reassessment of Asherah all the illustrations were ones I drew by hand. You can do that on paper. The only investment is a single sheet and a pencil. A scanner can handle the rest.
Technologists like to espouse that there’s no such thing as a page. Authors, they aver, must learn to write without references to page numbers. Avoid the words “above” and “below” to refer to something discussed elsewhere in the text. This “format neutral language” (for it has to have a fancy name) is intended to ease the reading experience for the ebook. With my Kindle software, however, there are still pages. Don’t we call them webpages? Don’t we bookmark both our place in Kindles and on the web? Why then can’t we have our page numbers? Have you ever tried to make your laptop into a paper airplane when you’re bored? It’s often hard for progressive creatures like ourselves to admit that maybe we have had it right the first time. Maybe reading and paper need each other. A future without paper will be very sterile indeed.
They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.
I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.
Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.