Matthew Parris

What you’re missing now that you don’t read this in print

The internet is a frighteningly efficient place for hunter-gathering – but the pleasures of undirected browsing are harder to find online

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Liverpool airport is a curiously unreal place in the half-light before dawn on a cold November morning. Out across the Mersey at high tide, raindrops turn the silver to lead, and at the easyJet departures gate people in tracksuit bottoms brush against the occasional tweed and Remembrance Day poppy. Intending stag-weekenders, and the set who have a little place in the Pyrenees, coincide but do not mingle. A young woman is trying to buy rosé wine, and an elderly gent is trying to find a copy of that morning’s Times.

The elderly gent is me, flying to Barcelona for the day for my sister’s 60th birthday lunch, to return that night to Manchester.

And yes, all the morning papers are available and I buy the one I write for; but it would make no difference if the paper had been the Telegraph or any other quality newspaper: my experience would have been the same. That experience is one I must have had thousands of times when younger: no more an ‘experience’ then than cleaning my teeth. This time, however, it felt strange and almost new.

I read a newspaper.

Of course I read newspapers all the time. I read them mostly online these days — it’s more convenient when you’re busy. And I’m always busy; always trying to do two things at once; always hurrying from one to another. For this kind of newspaper reading, online is brilliant. You can dive in, dive out. If you know what you’re looking for (and I usually do) you move with one click straight from a contents list to your desired report or column. There are news and politics summaries too; and you can flick between papers, and Google, and check a video link, and consult Wikipedia. The internet is a frighteningly efficient way of hunter-gathering. Our newspaper industry has decided to get itself out there online, and be part of that world. I do not regret this.

Indeed I’ve followed suit, though I don’t remember deciding to; I was resistant at first. I had taken a newspaper daily from the day I went up to Cambridge and subscribed to a special student offer, and every morning would look forward to the sound of the Times flopping onto my doormat, or onto the floor outside my hotel room; and drag the paper onto my bed; and begin the day indolently reading.

I can’t remember when this stopped. It must have been gradual. Slowly the convenience of looking online for what’s required must have impressed itself upon me. Slowly I switched from starting my day by seeing what there was, to snatching for what I wanted. I carried on receiving a daily print edition — I still do — but imperceptibly the physical, palpable paper must have slipped away from the focus of my morning. Perhaps I got busier. Certainly online was easier. Whatever the explanation, the result has been that it must now be ages since I read a newspaper properly in the old-fashioned way.

But on this November morning something in my head switched itself to standby. I’d been up at five. It would be a crowded flight in a cramped seat. And it would only be two hours. I’d worked hard and late the day before. Why not just buy a paper, buy a cup of tea, fold down my tray, and relax?

So as we roared off from the Liverpool runway with a grey light streaking the eastern sky, I spun myself a virtual cocoon within a cabin full of sleepy passengers, and with two empty hours ahead, settled into the Times for a session that was to all intents and purposes open-ended. There was nothing else to do. I felt at leisure.

An author called Mark Forsyth (he’s not unrelated to this journal’s James) has this year published a little pamphlet, ‘The Unknown Unknown’, about independent bookshops. In a way its subtitle says it all: ‘Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted’. The burden of Mr Forsyth’s song is that undirected browsing, the wandering that allows itself to be distracted from its nominal destination, the vision that slips easily off-focus into what’s peripheral and may dwell there, is a lost pleasure to those who buy books with the fierce directedness that (for example) Amazon permits.

My grandad would have agreed with Forsyth. I have a beautiful Victorian clock and a Chinese vase he came home with 90 years ago, after Nana sent him out with money to buy bed-linen.

It struck me as I read my paper that Forsyth’s observation applies equally to the difference between relaxing with the printed Saturday edition of a quality newspaper, and the urgent directedness that had become my habit as an online reader.

Reading up there in the clouds I felt purpose slacken and idle curiosity grow.

In her ‘Feedback’ column, Rose Wild had published a moving poem by a reader’s great-uncle about the first world war (in which he was later killed). I had time to read all the letters to the editor, even one about rugby which was very funny though I’m not interested in rugby. I learned from a nature diary that lichen is not an organism but a partnership of algae and fungi. A colleague had written feelingly about the death of his mother. Indulging myself a little, I read every article in the paper’s extended coverage of the weekend’s crisis in Ed Miliband’s leadership, and reflected that sources seemed rather thin.

And then the pilot’s voice cut through this happy immersion in Things You Didn’t Buy The Newspaper To Read; and we were coming in to land at Barcelona.

Two hours had sped. By being reminded of what was once familiar, I had had a new experience. I had read the morning paper as we used to in the old days, days that will never return. And I had realised that I was missing something: something that slipped away while I wasn’t looking. Sadly, I folded up my newspaper.

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  • Sean Grainger

    Columns off of shorts (news in briefs) were are and ever will be the best thing in print not least the one-page round-up from all 50 states in USA Today.

    • Richard Baranov

      Actually, that’s exactly how I use the BBC home page short stories, read their propaganda and then use the internet to verify the facts. The BBC doesn’t do impartiality anymore it is a wholly owned subsidiary of International Socialism Inc.

  • Tilly

    Ah you went to Cambridge, explains a lot. I had to give up my place there to take care of a relative. I spend my time writing
    for a living. Whereas my hubby has the excellent degrees and traditional high powered job.

    Actual newspapers (even the Telegraph) will eventually be the thing of the past, after all with 24 hr news, its outdated by the time
    we read it. And I’ll go as far as to say this will happen to the written
    word in general.
    Matthew, at somepoint in the future there will be no need to hold
    a pen.And I’ll wager you that fact.

  • flippit

    Oh Lord, what tosh. Nothing new at all. Reminiscence on the old world of newspapers, and a sad reflection about the “frighteningly” efficient internet. Yawn. And of course the online newspaper hosts the ‘dark, scary world down there’ that is the realm of the blogpost!

    • Mc

      One can’t expect any better from Parris – the man’s a complete bore and intellectual Pygmy and nothing can remedy that.

      • Chris Morriss

        Anyone who called his grandmother “Nana” is clearly from the bottom of the pile. Nana is a name you might call your dog, (if you were of a certain age that is).

  • global city

    Matthew, what are your views on the good folk of Rochester & Strood?

    You were sure that they were much more prosperous and sophisticated than the has beens who infest….er, I mean inhabit Clacton. Do you now feel that voting for UKIP is a much more sophisticated choice than taking the usual ‘follow your betters’ vote and putting you mark in the Tory box?

    I’d say so.

    • Polly Radial

      Silence . . . all is silence . . . .

  • AJAX


    • you_kid

      Eh? Read a lot do you?

      • gerontius

        More than you probably

        • Richard Baranov

          Does he read? Can he read? Are you sure someone isn’t reading and typing for him? I suspect that he only just got through potty training.

    • Samson


      • So who are YOU voting for, then? Russell Brand, Mr Etonian, or Tightarse Androgynous of the Monster Raving Loony Party?

        • Samson

          I don’t know who to vote for. The Tories are largely hollow aristocrats, or wannabe aristocrats, still very rich and in a position to pretend they’re powerful, but really looking up at corporate megagiants that own them and quaking with the knowledge that they came to power a quarter of a century too late to enjoy it. Labour have a few old schoolers who believe things and whatnot, but.. Miliband, and his crew, and the Blairites, oh my. The traitorous Lib Dems I won’t dignify with more than this sentence. The greens are a sentient windfarm. Russell Brand imagines handholding utopia everywhere because he doesn’t do drugs now. UKIP, according to their internet fans, are carved out of honesty itself, made into beacons of forthrightness and justice themselves, like superpeople, incorruptible, pure, true, real, The Ones, harbingers of a return to 1950s super-perfection. Great wages for everyone, trading and stuff maybe, and an NHS that might be privatized but eh who knows let’s see what the polls say. Personally I think UKIP believe things, like most humans, and make those things known, like most humans, which makes them totally and utterly unique in modern politics, and has thrown a great purple spanner into Westminster. Getting into power would rinse them of that freedom, that uniqueness, and the temptation to corruption would be unavoidably extreme. Not that that would matter a jot, because govts are like specks of atomic dust stuck on the microbes on the backs of flies who live on the ultra-piles of finance that is the lifeblood of corporate Earth. We head for another global crash with complete haste, in the hands of junky bankers who would kill the very universe for a day’s win. So I’m voting for the invention of a time machine big enough for everyone, even the bankers, that lets us escape to any other time of history, even the more brutal times, when things had meaning, when anything had meaning. 1950 will do alright, I suppose.

          edit: Tightarse Androgynous made me laugh.

  • Richard Baranov

    The wonderful thing about print newspapers before the internet was that elitist prats such as yourself, Mathew, were able to give their opinions and we, the great unwashed, were unable to verify what you had to say by independent means. So,
    of course you miss newsprint, the daily rags maintained the self serving power of
    your class, whereas the internet undermines it and that’s a good thing. Under
    newsprint we would have never become aware of just how rotten your class is or
    how low an opinion you have of the non-U public.

    The Telegraph; ‘quality’!!! It’s another liberal rag about one step above the Daily Mail what with Hodgywogykinswoojumswaaa throw toys out of socialist pram I will
    and the likes of Charles Moore, individuals who deliberately lie and distort
    the truth to suit establishment propaganda against UKIP or, for that matter, anything else outside of the establishment that rocks your decedent fin de siecle world.

    The only reason you miss newspapers is because they represented the dominance of your class and now, exposed for the incompetents that you are – your class used to call it ‘muddling through, an attitude that would get anyone in an ordinary job fired – we now know your kind are in no way deserving of your class privileges. You and the rest of you lie through your teeth and misrepresent on a constant basis simply to preserve your cozy world but we now know it for certain thanks to the
    internet, and, as a result you are seeing the end of the line for your sort
    and, not a moment too soon, in fact it is long overdue.

    • Polly Radial

      Exactly. These liberal hacks are just parasites.

      • Richard Baranov

        Love your avatar and nom de plume they make me laugh!

  • Ed  

    “The lost pleasures of riding a horse to work every day.”

    Yeah, I don’t miss that, either.

  • thesgm

    You would expect the newspapers to present an objective non-slanted view of the news, but they do not. When editors, columnists, etc write with a slanted view toward one side or the other the report becomes propaganda not reporting. They do not provide an analysis of the news allowing the reader to make up his own mind they attempt to direct us toward their conclusion. It becomes a non-informed approach and we loose interest and trust in the newspapers and their reporting; thus we shun them and seek news from other sources if we can find them.

  • trace9

    “.. (and I usually do) ..”

    Just what does that ‘and’ signify .. an I’m-So-Grand and?

  • edithgrove

    “An author called Mark Forsyth (he’s not unrelated to this journal’s James)”

    I am sure Mark is every bit as brilliant as James, possibly more so if that could be imagined, but it would be oh so nice to pick up a copy of the Spectator and not read or know of the writer’s relatives.

    • But is he as brilliant as Matthew (see Fraser Nelson on that)?

  • Jim

    The letters page in most newspapers is not as lively as the comments section on a website. Those were the days eh Matthew? When you only had to hear Fraser Nelson’s opinion of your writing.

  • Andrew Morgan

    Matthew I dont usually feel sorry for you but I do today. An innocent indulgence like the pleasure of reading a proper newspaper when travelling seems to have attracted a lot of personal abuse. Like you I read everything online when at home , but always buy and enjoy the Times or Telegraph when on a journey. Where else would one spot adverts for 1970’s stock like ” staypressed trousers” or slippers or other weird relics from previous ages.

    • Agreed. The unhinged snarlers really do seem to have been all let out at once here.

  • browntonge

    Ignore the trolls, Matthew. Happy 60th birthday to your sister. I hope you all enjoyed a slap up Catalan lunch followed by a big old cake with candles. Shame you couldn’t enjoy the charms of Barcelona for longer. Must have been a bit of a downer arriving back at Manchester

  • Whatever

    The internet: crap competes with crap and begets more crap. Everything was better pre-internet. Everything.

    • Samson

      Cheer up, Whatever

      • Tilly

        I’ll second that, someone one give whatever a hug.

    • John Smith

      Even food

    • Which is why you’re here commenting, of course : )

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    I used to be a daily reader: FT, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Wall Street Journal.

    When I took the commuter train into Manhattan for my first Wall Street job after uni in the mid 1990s there was a special technique for folding the paper (usually the WSJ) into tiny squares in the crowded seats.

    And don’t forget, newspapers were once incredibly useful for lining the cages of incontinent budgerigars and for swatting campus Bolsheviks in the face.

    At some point, as technology declines, newspapers will come back. Computers, iPhones and other modern gadgets won’t last forever.

    • Samson

      The modern gadget industry is not pleased with your prediction, Laguna Beach Fogey

    • little islander

      We will get there when we get there.

  • HenryWood

    “[undirected browsing] … is a lost pleasure to those who buy books with the fierce directedness that (for example) Amazon permits.”

    Absolute and utter tosh, but no more than I would expect from a writer I once respected.

    I had been buying books for over sixty years in the way you describe, then about ten years ago I started using Amazon. What is this “fierce directedness” you speak of?

    I have bought more “unintended/unplanned” books from Amazon than I ever did using my local booksellers. The way the Amazon books section is laid out and works is serendipity for a bibliophile. I may go looking for a title, possibly reviewed in this week’s Spectator, and goodness knows where I will end up. The customer reviews are (often) entertaining and a lot of them contain pointers to other books I have not heard from through the Spectator or other sources. On the same page as the book offered for sale are countless other choices mainly in a similar vein, just like browsing a physical store which has its stock properly organised.

    Then there is the “look inside” available on many books these days enabling you to read the first few pages. Try doing that in your local bookshop (if you still have one) and it is usually impossible because they do not have the book I seek in stock and must order it for me.

    These days I am moving more and more to e-books from Amazon and other sources and the sheer “handiness” of having a load of books to hand in the middle of the night when the cursed insomnia strikes is a great help. I also find handling an e-reader (I have four different ones) much easier on my arthritic hands than handling the paper physical copies.

    Your article is absolute and utter tosh. Again.

  • Trofim

    I sometimes used to buy the Times on Saturday to read Matthew Parris’s column, but my respect for his opinions has diminished hugely since he contributed to the abuse heaped on those willing to vote UKIP. He’s only a shade short of John “there’s nothing wrong with a UKIP voter than can’t be improved by a good dose of diversity” McTernan.
    The other thing about reading a good newspaper is that it should be accompanied by the aroma of tobacco.
    But apart from their value as reading matter, however are we going to cope without newspapers, for wiping, mopping up, wrapping, rubbish disposal thereof and so on.

    • I’ve always hated newsprint because it seemed to proliferate like tribbles and came in a bulk that made Grote’s history of Greece look like nothing much, and I hated the ink filth on my fingers. And still do.

    • Grace Ironwood

      Don’t knock John McTernan. The man came all the way over to Australia to advise and help bring down our worst- ever socialist Prime Minister.

      Australians will always be grateful to Britain for this man’s abilities in the mud. His exploits down under deserve to be more widely known.

      • Mc

        I can imagine Julia Gillard doesn’t hold it against McTernan that she and her party lost power 😉 One does have to wonder how desperate and ill informed she must’ve been to hire McTernan.

  • Polly Radial

    Sad, pointless, lazy, out of date and poorly written.

    He should be writing for the DT.

    Apparently they pay the minimum wage.

  • Chingford Man

    I know what Parris means about enjoying a broadsheet at leisure. Sadly, all the UK broadsheets seem to compete with each other in downward imitation of the Mail or even Metro. Once upon a time, broadsheets prided themselves on keeping opinion and reporting separate. Now you can sense Finkelstein’s contempt in any news story whenever UKIP is mentioned.

    The Telegraph is a particular disgrace with its new American undesirables who are more interested in internet hits about three-breasted women than producing a quality paper that Deedes and Utley might still recognise. Charles Moore is an elegant and thought-provoking writer but any newspaper that employs an agitprop-producing ar*ehole like Dan Hodges deserves the fate that must await it within a decade or so.

    If you want a nice cafe in Rochester High Street to enjoy breakfast with a newspaper, Matthew, I recommend a lovely Italian-owned place. It is right next to the UKIP office, so lots and lots of Kippers, but it also does a great sausage baguette with onion marmalade. Just keep your head down to avoid the riff-raff.

    • CO Jones

      A rarther soporific piece from Mr. Parris on the eve of the Rochester & Strood by election. No doubt after his own-goal on behalf of UKIP prior to the Clacton by election, he has been asked / told to keep his toffee-nosed views to himself.

      • Chingford Man

        An unnamed Tory MP has already compared the Strood half of the constituency with C4’s Benefits Street. Oddly enough, the pro-Tory Speccie kids haven’t blogged about it. I rather think they might have done if someone from UKIP had said it.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    You mean one without spelling errors, incorrect abbreviations and inaccuracies? Dream on in UK trash culture.

    • Richard

      How right you are, Jackthesmilingblack, how right you are.

  • Sean L

    Complete rubbish as usual. It’s far harder to avoid browsing on Amazon. The entire thing is designed to tempt you to at every stage. You can even read parts of the books before deciding to buy. Whether one prefers to visit a shop and/or paper over screen is another matter. But surely buying or browsing on Amazon is bound to be more leisurely if only because buying in a shop entails being on someone else’s property whereas you can remain in bed with Amazon. . .

  • But Mr Parris, that eclecticism is precisely why I love the online Spectator!

  • I still love reading the daily paper.

  • A World of Paine

    What, no disparaging remarks about the knuckle-dragging populace of Rochester and Strood to provide a pre-election Tory boost. Instead some fatuous nonsense about …. indeed, what was in about – probably about time you packed it in Parrris.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    Many of the pages of a newspaper go straight into the wastepaper basket. Various supplements and stuff about soccer and celebs that we old geezers have not heard of. I find that I buy papers mainly to read certain columnists. For that reason, the internet is a boon.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Good point, though thoroughly misunderstood if the comments are anything to judge by. There is a sheer delight in finding something you have not been looking for, that’s actually exactly what makes us human. The spread of mechanialgorithms somehow diminishes the human capacity to wander into all sorts of unexpected things, some of which might actually prove much more valuable than the ones attained by purposeful quest.

    • Sean L

      But where Amazon is concerned the “fierce directness” he speaks of is quite wrong. Even where you know already what you want, there’s usually a buy new or second-hand option. Then there are numerous suppliers each with their own customer reviews. To say nothing of the innumerable alternative offerings enticing you. And once you click another option there’s a further array. . . You have to wonder when he last used it – he’s way off the mark on that score.

      • pearlsandoysters

        The real problem is that Amazon uses algorithms to suggest more options, normally it means more of the same with or without reviews attached. That is not necessarily a bad thing and definitely has its tangible benefits. However, there is no algorithm to link things that may not have very obvious connection. The undeniable merit of a good book store is that your attention might be drawn by something you’ve never known existed before catching a glimpse of the cover. I found many a delightful book this way. As for the newspapers, there’s certain joy in having a limited assortment of articles. This way you have to choose and focus on what’s right in front of you rather than chase more or less similar pieces on the web. The real, physical reality gives you a good focus, a virtual one blurs everything to the point of insignificance.

        • Sean L

          Yeah I take your point – there’s no subsitute for physical books. But what you say only applies if you actually search for a particular author or title. But you can just as easily browse by genre. Which you’ll often be more inclined to do anyway, particularly if you’re using a Kindle devoid of a keyboard. Just as when you enter a bookshop you’ll have a look around, as you say, even if you have a speicific book in mind. Same principle really.

          • Hi Sean. Kindle is a great service to me. Firstly, we have far too many books and too few bookcases to house them (we are both biblilophiles well over 20, and we buy frequently, especially Mister). I put as much on Kindle as I can, to cut down inventory. Also, I walk my dog at least twice a day and though I love her madly, and appreciate where I live, it would often be lost time without a portable ‘book’ to read. I do much of my reading on KIndle while walking the dog.

          • Sean L

            Some impressive multi-tasking going on there Madam Swanky. Yeah I was once one of those who scoffed at Kindle and could never have imagined using one myself. But am now definitely converted. All I want for now is a dog!

          • That’s so sweet. P. S. I’m great at what I call ‘dual-tasking’, and often do it without even thinking, such as sweeping the floor while I’m on the phone or ironing while reading the Kindle — again! But multi-tasking is beyond me.

          • Sean L

            I must be a mono-tasker . . .

          • I think one is happiest mono-tasking, with something that takes all your attention and completely engages your mind. Probably if I didn’t comment on these threads so much, I’d have more time : )

          • Sean L

            Yes it is a peculiar and time consuming compulsion. Perhaps one day Matthew Paris will pronounce on its true significance. .

          • And when he does, I’m sure we’ll all be staggered by his brilliance.

          • Sean L

            Quite literally.

          • Heh heh heh!

          • pearlsandoysters

            My point is that no one can chart so far your movements, gaze or flow of thoughts once in a book shop. One may aim to get a thick volume on modern art and end up acquiring a slim book on geometry. That’s the whole point of not being directed by anything but your own flow of life, thoughts & imagination. In a way, Amazon serves as an artificial imagination, which does not contribute to diversity of possible pathways.

          • Sean L

            Well no one can chart your thoughts anywhere, least of all alone in your bed with tablet or Kindle. But surely your movements and gaze will be more susceptible to surveillance in such a public place as a shop, a far more manipulative environment than Amazon, pariticularly via Kindle, which is all black and white; no distracting images or eyecatching book covers, just pure unadulterated text, alphabetically ordered by author. Talk of flow of life reminds me of DH Lawrence whose complete works I’ve got on Kindle. Otherwise I’m totally with you in spirit but believe it’s far *less* true of a typical shop than Amazon. The great virtue of going shopping compared to buying online is the *social* element: It’s the solitary nature of it that would horrify Lawrence. But as far as one’s thought’s being directed by external stimuli is a factor, then it’s hard to imagine a less distracting environment than Amazon Kindle on one’s own home turf. . .

        • You neglect to include the impact of Amazon’s customer reviews, which make suggestions in all directions. I have never felt straitjacketed by Amazon. Change your search terms slightly, and something new will appear.

          • pearlsandoysters

            With or without reviews Amazon sets one on a particular track & keeps giving more options that lay on the surface. Meanwhile, books may be connected with one another in a pretty strange & unexpected ways. I’ve never been surprised by Amazon’s suggestions, let alone enticed to buy extra books. If one wants a quality over quantity search, Google books is much better. I am especially fond of the books that have no reviews attached, yet are are gems of intelligence .

          • I’m a huge Amazon fan myself. But none of this would be possible without the Internet. Life is definitely better with it than it was without it.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    I read recently that ‘f*ck’ first appeared in a newspaper in the late nineteenth century. It was in The Times and was the work of an employee who was peeved at being told that he was going to be sacked.

    That titbit came from the printed press.

  • Mike

    I’m quite happy to miss the biased self opinionated articles that you might read in most newspapers and I’d much rather be selective by using the internet at little or no cost. There’s been more than enough smears and attempts to trash Ukip on line (but failed) without me having to pay for the privilege of reading party spin in newsprint. The enormous amount of unjustified negativity and downright lies towards Ukip turns me off just as much as most of the electorate and constantly using words like racist & bigot no longer mean anything due to over use as do these biased articles.

    I’ll stick to on-line sources as I can filter out the rubbish & the bias and just hone in on the truth !

  • Another advantage of the printed press is that you don’t get all the unedited “comments” frothed out by people in serious need of anger management therapy and totally lacking in basic decency.