In Praise of Carbon Paper
Cc: Even great writers like Robert Caro have a fondness for carbon paper's blue-black charms
The Apple visionary Steve Jobs was onto something when he attached analog images and sounds to his desktop tasks. Jobs knew we would be trapped in an antiseptic digital world and need reminders of a time when our senses were engaged, when cut and paste actually meant scissors and glue.
So, he gave us the whoosh that accompanies sending an email and the sound of crumpling paper that signals emptying the trash. The "60 Minutes" correspondent, the late Morley Safer, delighted in a Mac friendly software program that made his computer keyboard sound like the click-clack of an old manual Underwood .
For those who relish the artisanal and the tactile, there's another candidate for this kind of homage, a computer-replaced tool that I stumbled upon recently during one of my occasional visits to Etsy to browse through the old manual and electric typewriters for sale — a collection of vintage, originally packaged carbon paper.
My 'Carbon Sessions'
Carbon paper was the invention of an Italian that was patented by an Englishman in the early 1800s. When the modern typewriter was developed some years later, they joined like hand in glove. It became the indispensable means for creating a second version of something: a sheet coated on one side with a thin layer of carbon, secured with wax on the other side.
Carbon paper could serve as the conduit for the inky records of money, misdeeds or memories.
Place it between two pieces of regular paper, carbon side down, and it transfers the strike of a typewriter key or the pressure of a pen from the top paper to the bottom sheet.
For anyone who's ever inserted one or two sheets into a typewriter, carbon paper could serve as the conduit for the inky records of money, misdeeds or memories. One of my own memories is from my days as a young daily newspaper reporter, recollections of something called my "carbon sessions," when I sat with a crusty, retired newspaper editor who would go over my unedited virgin copy with the sharpest of pencils and rake me over the coals along the way.
Back then we typed our stories in triplicate: ripping out our pages from the two sheets of carbon paper sandwiched between them, one set for our editors and the copy desk, one for the layout staff and one saved in our drawers for our monthly sessions.
With the help of carbon paper, I learned a lesson about writing.
Ed the editor was stingy with his words and mine. I remember showing him a feature story of which I was particularly proud. Introducing a character, I wrote, "... and he looked up with a worried expression on his face." He took that black pencil and crossed out "on his face."
"Where else would his expression be?" he growled. It was only three words, but so much better to lose them. I think the offending words actually made it into the paper in the heat of deadline, but no matter. With the help of carbon paper I learned a lesson about writing.
Robert Caro Believes in Carbon Paper
For most any journalist I know, the greatest teacher and role model of all is the legendary biographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro, and it happens that carbon paper has played a pivotal role in a journalistic moment of his own.
The inked, waxy sheets made it possible for Caro to read all of the official papers and secrets of New York's fearsome master builder Robert Moses, who had declared his records off limits to snooping reporters. Moses, however, had forgotten the thousands of carbon copies sequestered in the garage of an NYC Parks Department building. On a tip, Caro discovered them, making it possible to create his immense journalistic monument, "The Power Broker."
He has kept carbon copies of all of it and of everything he writes in a cabinet above his refrigerator.
Not surprisingly Caro believes in carbon paper, which also makes a cameo appearance in a new documentary, "Turn Every Page," an appreciation of Caro's forty-year relationship with his editor, Robert Gottlieb, who is as much a giant in his field as Caro in his.
Caro, often not obligingly, cut thousands of semi colons and words, an astounding 350,000 words, from "The Power Broker" alone, enough to comprise a pretty giant book all by itself. He has kept carbon copies of all of it and of everything he writes in a cabinet above his refrigerator. Someday, Caro speculates, those hundreds of thousands of lost words may yet see the printed and bound page, thanks to carbon copies.
Out of necessity, Caro also keeps an inventory of electric typewriters for spare parts and I imagine he has cornered the market on ribbons and carbon paper as well. Only a handful of small companies in the United States still manufacture carbon paper. He'll need plenty. At 87, he is still working on the fifth and final volume of his biography of President Lyndon Johnson, under the 91-year-old Gottlieb's relentless pencil.
The Imperfection of Carbon Paper
For most other people, carbon paper has gone the way of the typewriter, though it's still possible that you'll glance it on the countertop at the deli, or at the dry cleaners, or any small business that needs a readily available, tangible, convenient copy of something, usually then put on a countertop spike.
The ghost of carbon paper barely lives on through those two little letters that accompany our emails – Cc: for carbon copy.
The uniqueness and allure of carbon paper is in its imperfection. It does not produce facsimiles or duplicates of the original but copies, carbon copies, that degrade with use — unpredictable, just a bit fuzzy or smudged, usually in an odd shade of blue-black, decidedly not designed to impersonate the original, but with a life and character of their own.
The ghost of carbon paper barely lives on through those two little letters that accompany our emails – Cc: for carbon copy. One newspaper reporter dubbed Cc : an "orphan initialism," a construction where the abbreviation survives but whose meaning is outdated or irrelevant.Think about AARP which has strategically retired the R word. Or NPR. Once upon a time it was National Public Radio, until that R word was deemed too, well, old.
Some have said that because its original meaning is anachronistic Cc: should stand for "Courtesy copy." But that term is so anodyne. Anyone who has ever Cc'd knows that its uses are not necessarily benign.
So in the spirit of Steve Jobs's desktop and in a nostalgic nod to carbon paper itself, I suggest that today's ersatz Cc's be digitally rendered just a tad imperfectly, a little fuzzier, maybe only in blue-black, or even with a few flying capitals thrown in for good measure, just for the dwindling numbers of us who remember what those were.