Nicholas Basbanes celebrates the ingenuity behind one of our most common products

03/02/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

“On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History” by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Alfred A. Knopf, 430 pages, $35)

In a celebration of human ingenuity, journalist and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes lays out the history, utility and scope of one of the world’s most ordinary and ubiquitous commodities: paper.

Well known for his love of books and his scholarship in the area of book culture, Basbanes in his most recent work, “On Paper,” gives us a consummate look at the pages of books as well as reminds us of the myriad other uses paper continues to serve, even in a modern world that some have forecast to be a “paperless society.” While it is true that paper dependency has decreased in recent years (are you reading this review on an electronic device?), paper is far from obsolete. Basbanes quotes a group of historians who document 20,000 current commercial uses for paper.

He begins his exploration of paper by noting three fundamentals of the papermaking process that were vital at the beginning 2,000 years ago and are still indispensable today: clean water, cellulose fiber and a screen mold. He observes that while paper is a natural product, it is also an idea, not just something inevitable. It would not have happened without human ingenuity and invention. Commencing in China, papermaking techniques evolved over hundreds of years. The process eventually migrated to Korea and Japan; then the secrets of the process traveled on to Arab countries and Europe following the silk trade routes, wherever societies mingled or collided.

Basbanes notes in interviews that the word “everything” in the book’s subtitle is italicized and not meant to be taken literally. He concedes that no book can cover everything about paper, but he certainly takes an “everything” approach to his topic and touches on areas of paper production and usage that the reader might not be expecting. Indeed, if the book has a fault, it would be its breadth. All of the topics he broaches are interesting, but perhaps some would have been more effective if published separately. For example, one chapter is almost entirely about origami and the properties of paper necessary in this artistic expression. Another chapter, on a tangential topic that might be seen as overreach, deals with the raining down of “massive plumes of office paper beneath shrouds of sickly gray dust” witnessed in the destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The history of paper in the United States is explored from the country’s early days. At the beginning of American papermaking in 1690, rags were used exclusively for the fiber component; however, rags became more difficult to obtain in necessary quantities. As demand for paper increased, “mass production, not perfection, became the driving impulse,” and wood pulp was found to be a reasonable alternative. By 1873, newspapers were leading the way in using paper made of wood pulp. Eventually factories were designed to handle the complete process, from taking in logs at the back door to sending out paper at the front door.

Basbanes takes us into modern paper factories and explains some of the processes that, depending on the factory, produce a variety of items from stamps and currency to tea bags and toilet paper. He addresses fascinating topics as diverse as the use of paper cartridges in the development of ammunition for firearms and the fundamental importance of paper documents for personal identification from birth to death certificates.

The author introduces the notion that paper has played an essential part in allowing brilliant minds to achieve their thoughts by providing the medium for expression: illustrations, notes and fleeting ideas to be captured and developed later. He uses Leonardo da Vinci and his notebooks as a prime example, followed by analogous examples of Beethoven and Edison. Who knows how many great ideas began with a drawing on an old envelope or a cocktail napkin?

Basbanes’ book is not just a history of paper but a chronicle of the effects paper has had on societies, cultures and industries around the world. The author refers to paper as the “currency of architecture” and as being vital in the development of engineering. After the introduction of paper, designers were able to communicate their ideas and thoughts to the workers for a better result in the final product. According to James F. O’Gorman, an architectural historian interviewed by the author, “before the Renaissance, buildings were begun without a clear overall picture of how they would end. They took many decades to build a cathedral, often more than a hundred years, and they improvised and modified what they were doing constantly over time.” The idea of drafting a complete plan before construction began was introduced in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, precisely when the shift was being made from writing surfaces of animal skins to paper.

Basbanes traveled the world and devoted eight years to the research and writing of this fascinating exposition on a commodity that is “plentiful, inexpensive and portable.” Paper is so pervasive in the world that the average user gives little thought to the fact that it is also an idea that has revolutionized human civilization.

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