The column | In praise of paper

I was at a meeting the other morning, and as it drew to a close, everyone whipped out their smartphones to schedule a follow-up. Everyone except me. I — slowly, proudly — took out my Filofax.

I love my Filofax. I bought it in 1991, and it came with a map of the London Underground (Filofax is a British company) as well as a world map indicating such political artifacts as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR. Plus, as it says on the front inside cover, it’s made of Real Leather, which smells good and gives it an aura of quiet authority. Write in me, it seems to say, and I’ll keep you right on track.

Like all the best datebooks, my Filofax is a six-ring binder that I refill with paper calendars every year. This is key for many reasons. First, I can control how much of a given year I want to plan. Is recalling where I was in March more important than setting my December schedule? Then I can keep more back pages and see where I’ve been, at a flick of the wrist. Or, alternatively, I can buy two years of calendars in advance and start planning for 2015.

It’s like controlling time itself.

Second, it’s so very easy. Want to see what next Tuesday looks like? Leaf through a couple of pages and I’m right there, with full visual depiction of how much I’ve already scheduled and at what times — no need to press buttons and scroll up and down a tiny screen. I can circle really important things, or highlight them in red. And the sense of accomplishment when I cross off things I’ve done is palpable. Literally.

My Filofax reminds me that I’m a world citizen. Along with the aforementioned maps, the daily calendar I use is in three languages — German, French and English. Today is not only Monday, but Montag and Lundi. Plus, I know when all the bank holidays fall, and the queen’s birthday.

And when one year is done, I take out the pages, bind them together and save them in my own personal geniza, my storage box of things that are too precious to be destroyed. Thus I have written record of my goings-on for the past decade and a half (earlier years were discarded in Israel to reduce shipping costs for my move back to California). It’s kind of creepy, but who knows? I might one day need written proof of that dentist appointment in 2003.

Keeping written records of the past is a very Jewish act. In the same drawer where I store my old Filofax pages, I keep cards and letters I’ve received over the years. There’s a letter my mother wrote me in 1982, when I was living on kibbutz for the year. It’s penned on slightly shiny white vellum, what we used to call “airmail paper” because it was lighter-weight than the typical stationery. There’s a love letter — in French! — from the Belgian architect student I met at Cornell in the spring of 1976. My, he had lovely blond curls. There are years and years of birthday cards from my father, crudely hand-drawn in crayon (a family tradition).

The letters stop in the mid-’90s, marking when email came into vogue. I have no paper trail from the last two decades — except for my Filofax calendars, a poor substitute for letters from loved ones.

Letters are so important. Think of how much historical research depends on personal and political correspondence. From George Washington’s letter to Touro Synagogue, where our first president outlined the fundamentals of this country’s religious freedoms, to the heartsick letters home penned by new immigrants or early pioneers, letters are key to understanding the development of ideas and the movements of peoples.

I don’t write letters anymore myself, except thank-you notes and birthday cards. And those are rarely more than a few lines. The move away from letters affects the way people communicate their thoughts and feelings, and — I would argue — influences the very workings of our intellect and emotions. “Darling, how I long for your touch, how I miss the exquisitely sweet perfume of your neck” means something quite apart from “u free 2nite?”

People write differently when they haven’t spoken in a while, when they know that the words they’re writing won’t be read for a week or two, and then will be kept and, no doubt, reread time and again. They put more care into their words, and construct their thoughts more mindfully.

I’ll be keeping my Filofax.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].