Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

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

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

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

By Nicholas A. Basbanes


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.


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. …

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