The Everything of its Two-Thousand Year History
Nicholas A. Bisbanes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of nine works of cultural history, with a particular emphasis on various aspects of books, book history, and book culture. His book On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship in 2008, and was a runner-up for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction for 2014. It was also named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association, one of the best books of the year by Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Mother Jones, and Bloomberg News, and a “favourite” book of 2013 by the National Post (Canada). A paperback edition was issued by Vintage Press in 2014.
Paper is such an integral part on one’s daily life; computers and e-books notwithstanding, one still instinctively reaches for paper to clarify one’s thoughts or just to write for its own sake. A typical home has hundreds of paper products, from bathroom tissues to packaging. We usually don’t stop to consider it. Until you read On Paper, that is. This absorbing tome traces the evolution of paper from its invention China in A.D. 105, its journey to the Arab world in the eighth century, to Italy in the thirteenth century and then to North America and the rest of the world. From these origins, Basbanes picks up the threads of the development and importance of paper in several areas and weaves them all into a compelling and coherent narrative.
We travel to remote corners of China to observe papermaking techniques that have remained unchanged in more than a thousand years, we admire the beauty of Japanese handmade paper, and visit Samarkand in Central Asia, where Arabs learned paper-making from the Chinese, and from where the knowledge spread to Europe.
Basbanes traces the paper-making process: first from disintegrating plant matter, then rags and cellulose obtained from trees. We visit the factories of Crane and Company in Massachusetts (which provides currency notes for the United States Treasury Department), and then Kimberly-Clark for its hygiene products.
We learn about the role paper played in the development of ammunitions and cigarettes, its importance as a foundation for one’s identity (and during war, for one’s safety), and the profound dependence on paper by intelligence agencies. Without paper, there would be no bureaucracies, and it is the remnants of hard copies that point us to egregious cover-ups by government agencies.
There is a fascinating chapter on the “Face Value” of paper, in which Basbanes explores currency (and some outlandishly inflated examples therein, like the German Weimar reichsmarks and the Zimbabwe dollar), forgeries, rare stamps, and the first printing of the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
Without the ready availability of such a useful flat writing surface, it may be argued that Leonardo da Vinci would not have been such a creative genius – his wide-ranging ruminations achieved expression on paper. Paper was the essential tool for Beethoven to write down thousands of pages of musical ideas. Thomas Edison left thirty-five hundred notebooks with his notes and thoughts. Paper was not only a writing surface for him, but also a material of function – he invented the ticker-tape machine and the precursor of the mimeograph. During the Renaissance, paper became the medium for architectural drawings and blueprints. Paper can also be transformed into art – an entire chapter is devoted to origami.
Each exploration of a facet of paper’s importance is a treasure trove. Most poignant of all, perhaps, is the last chapter of the book, which describes the flying paper from offices in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. One paper had the following words scrawled out hastily in pen: “84th floor west office 12 people trapped.” The tower collapses moments after this plea of help is found by an evacuee.
Part scholarly narrative, part good read, On Paper is an illuminating book that “guides us through paper’s inseparability from human culture.”
Bhavana is a freelance editor and writer, an avid reader, and lover of Ottawa’s public library system.