There have been all sorts of wonderful technological innovations since Marcus Aurelius’s time, particularly in the domain of writing. We got the printing press. We got typewriters. We got ballpoint pens and erasers and whiteout. We got computers and smartphones. We have emails and tweets and audio memos.
Journaling for Marcus wouldn’t have been easy. He needed ink and some sort of pen-like implement, and he had to write on fragile parchment. The supplies weren’t cheap. He needed to do everything by hand. We might think we are superior for all our fancy tools and real-time digital backups and copy and paste. But are we?
In a recent interview, Walter Isaacson pointed out just how well paper has held up over the centuries:
“Paper’s not a bad technology. It is really a good technology for the storage and retrieval of information. After 500 years, we still can turn the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. From the 1990s, Steve Jobs had some memos on a NeXT Computer in his house. Even with his tech [abilities], we couldn’t retrieve that, because the NeXT operating system no longer can retrieve the documents that well. So every now and then, one of the lessons I learned is take notes on paper in a notebook. They’ll be around 50 years for …your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They’ll be around maybe 500 years.”
It is remarkable that the simple letters that Seneca penned by hand to a friend survive to us today and remain best read in print. It’s incredible to think that Marcus Aurelius’s journals, which also endure, were themselves influenced by the notes one of his teachers took while sitting and listening to the lectures of Epictetus. There are fragments in his journal and in the journals and commonplace books of writers that preserve lines from Epictetus that would have otherwise vanished to history.
The power of putting things down on paper should not be underestimated, particularly today. Sure, it can be a pain to carry books around with you. Every once in a while a pen breaks in your pocket or your bag and makes a mess. Yes, handwritten words are harder to search. They take up more space in your house than they would in the cloud.
But there is something special and timeless and perennial about the art of writing by hand. It’s a more involved process—and that’s the point. It’s good that it takes more time and energy, because you’ll remember it more. It’s good that it’s physical and takes up space—this way you’ll pass it in the hallway when you walk by. It’s good that it’s harder to search…who knows what you’ll find when you flip through the pages, one by one. So what if it’s more delicate? Maybe you’ll treat it with the respect it deserves this way.
Take Isaacson’s advice. Get a notebook. Start writing!