On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

By Rosen, Christine | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History


Rosen, Christine, The Wilson Quarterly


On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History

By Nicholas A. Basbanes

Knopf

448 pp. $35

WE ARE SURROUNDED BY TECHNOLOGIES we take for granted, perhaps none so much as paper. Despite our increasing devotion to our smartphones and hyperbolic talk about a coming "paperless" society, the idea of going a day without a ream of paper in the office copy machine would alarm most people accustomed to using it. Because so many of paper's duties are humble or mundane--facilitator of personal hygiene, bureaucracy, and currency exchange, to name but a few--it is easy to overlook the central role it plays in our lives. Yet, as Nicholas Basbanes reminds us in his wide-ranging new study, On Paper, it is precisely this versatility and ubiquity that make paper worthy of respect, even in a digital age.

Basbanes identifies himself as a "bibliophiliac." His interest in paper grew out of a career exploring the culture of books in books of his own, including Patience and Fortitude (2001), about book preservationists, and the supremely entertaining A Gentle Madness (1995), about extreme book collectors and other bibliomanes. On Paper represents a new contribution to an ongoing dialogue about the future of reading and print. In recent years, writers such as American journalist Nicholas Carr have plumbed our collective cultural anxiety about the fate of the book, and of literacy itself. Recent studies such as English novelist Philip Hensher's ode to the lost art of handwriting betray a broader concern for the material culture of reading, writing, and publishing. The British writer Ian Sansom subtitled his own recent study of paper An Elegy.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Basbanes is more optimistic about the future of paper, in part because he has so thoroughly explored its past. "In contrast to the explosive manner in which the Internet has galloped its way from continent to continent over just a few recent decades," he writes, "paper took root methodically, one country at a time. Yet, as 'paradigm shifts' go, it was monumental, offering a medium of cultural transmission that was supple, convenient, inexpensive, highly mobile, simple to make ... and suited to hundreds of other applications, writing being just the most far-reaching."

As Basbanes demonstrates, this humble technology played a key role in many crucial historical moments: Gutenberg's printing press was remarkable, but it was nothing without paper on which to print. Paper was a key component of the first hot-air balloon, developed in 18th-century France, a great advance in the technology of flight. It has figured prominently in rebellions and political scandals over the centuries: Taxation of official paper documents in the American colonies by means of the Stamp Act of 1765 helped foment revolutionary war with Britain. The Zimmermann Telegram, the coded message the German government sent to its ambassador in Mexico in 1917 authorizing him to promise U.S. territory to Mexico if it entered World War I on the German side, helped goad America into entering the war after the British deciphered it. Today, with the U.S. government pulping about one hundred million top-secret documents every year, our country's most sensitive records are being recycled into pizza boxes and egg cartons.

To give readers a sense of paper's past significance and continued popularity, Basbanes travels to China and Japan to witness the ancient art of papermaking. He describes how the Chinese invented paper two millennia ago, after which the innovation spread east to Korea and Japan, and west through Central Asia and, eventually, Europe. Early paper, made by combining the inner bark of trees with scraps of cloth, hemp, and fishing nets that were soaked, beaten into pulp, then stretched and dried across a bamboo frame, was a vast improvement on the clay tablets and papyrus scrolls used in previous eras. Buddhist monks intent on disseminating their sacred sutras were some of paper's most enthusiastic early purveyors. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.