I have a friend who writes text messages as if they were emails and emails as if they were letters. We joke about this lag, and since our friendship spans back to the era of letters, and includes the era when emails truly were like letters, we can also see the slip within each form of correspondence. Letters disappeared, emails developed their own conventions, and texts have gotten textier.
This friend also happens to have been my first editor, and when he first asked me to write about art, I told him I would be writing much as I speak about art—in short fragments, as if to a friend. I didn’t even have a computer at the time, so I memorized my essay in bits, as bits—more or less like the bits in comedy routines. My friend, in turn, nicknamed me “The 19th Century Man.”
Those more verbal pieces led to other offers, and I began to write for newspapers, magazines, and journals. This was right around when writing for the web was becoming a requirement, so I also started writing for the web. Sometimes, I was writing for both.
I was always aware of the different registers of language—spoken, printed, web-based—but I also notice that those registers were shifting while my approach itself was also shifting. For example, while I was figuring out how to write for a newspaper—in my case this was the Ideas section of the Boston Globe—I was also aware that I was publishing in the twilight of the format. By pre-digital standards, the newspaper was the most temporary form of the published essay. But as I was learning it, it had acquired a new status as a site of relative permanence. Crucially, it didn’t invite clicks or comments. This was the silent, invisible reader of the pre-digital age. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, communicating with that reader.
Editing Paper Monument, we very much wanted to bring the candor of spoken discussions to print publishing. At the same time, we wanted to publish things that would last. Hence the somewhat self-contradictory name. Roger White and I began the endeavor at a moment when paper publishing seemed like a really retrograde move, but we thought it was interesting, especially in the largely digital context. That moment continues, in my view.