On Paper: The Everything of Its TwoThousand-Year History

Nicholas A Basbanes. New York: Knopf; 2013. 430 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-307-26642-2.

Previous books by Nicholas Basbanes have all been, in one way or another, books about books and those who love them. In his new one, On Paper, Basbanes turns his attention to the stuff that books (and much else) are made of: paper. On its surface, paper may seem a rather flat subject (wordplay is hard to pass up with a material so ubiquitous), but Basbanes does his best to make it as multidimensional as the origami he writes about late in the book.

Does he succeed? By and large, yes. He comes at his subject from a variety of angles and uncovers some surprising stories along the way. But as a whole, the book doesn’t come together as anything so organized and unified as origami. The pleasure is in the pieces.

The reason that paper was such a runaway success as an invention is inherent in its properties. Put simply, paper outperformed its competitors on all points. Paper is plentiful and durable. (Not so papyrus, which grows only in Egypt and rots in high humidity.) Paper is pliant and lightweight. (Bamboo strips, once used in China, are heavy and unbending.) Paper is inexpensive and indelible. (Parchment was neither—it was expensive to produce, and its ink could be scraped off.) Soon after its invention in China, traditionally considered to have occurred in AD 105, paper quickly proved its manifold utility and spread east and west until, centuries later, it had covered the world.

Early in his research, Basbanes recognized that he could not tell the real story of paper if he limited himself to treating it as a material good. The real story of paper lies in the multitude of things that humans have found to do with it. The closest Basbanes gets to articulating a thesis comes early in the preface: “my driving interest points more to the idea of paper” (p. xii, author’s italics). If paper as an idea does not make for much of a thesis—more of a rhetorical ragbag, really, than an argument—it does say a lot about his method. What drives the book is its author’s curiosity about its subject.

Nominally, the book is divided into three parts. Part 1 relates, in highlights, the history of paper from its beginnings through the 19th century, when wood pulp became the predominant raw material of its manufacture. Parts 2 and 3 consist of chapters that explore the myriad uses to which paper has been put over the ages. They include Da Vinci’s sketches of visionary contraptions, cartridges used to load 18th-century firearms, and late-19th-century toilet paper that brought unprecedented hygiene and comfort to a mass market. Those 12 chapters are episodic rather than sequential. In fact, they could be shuffled like so many playing cards (another paper product) and suffer little for the rearrangement. Readers at least have the benefit of being able to pick up and set down the book without losing their way.

Basbanes calls his book a work of history, but he researches and writes like the journalist he was for many years. Living sources provided much of his information about the past, and he gives over long stretches to quoting them. In each chapter, he takes the reader on a field trip—to the Marcal paper company, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Security Agency, and many others. In each place he visits, Basbanes interviews experts who explain to him how paper figures into the business at hand. To each interviewee he puts a version of the same question: What is the value of paper to the work you do? Here is how a conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library answers (p. 252):

He [the conservator] was amused by the question—how do we measure value after all, when it comes to paper?—but gave it some thought all the same. “So you’re asking me if these sheets of paper are valuable in and of themselves. I guess the answer is no—probably not. But that is a very interesting point you raise.”

The conservator goes on to explain that he often finds, tucked inside the books he restores, old broadsides, pamphlets, and religious tracts put there by someone long ago to reinforce a weakened binding. From the thousands of such sheets rescued from oblivion, the conservator helped to organize an exhibit called The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault.

The moral of this story is that the value of paper can sometimes be impossible to reckon from its physical makeup, which is no more or less than a lattice of cellulose fibers bonded in a flat, flexible plane. Junk paper that someone once repurposed as reinforcement becomes for someone else, in another time and place, a unique artifact worthy of restoration and display. Some paper valued today survived only because at one time someone decided that it was worthless.

On Paper has many moments like that, recounted skillfully by Basbanes, when paper assumes a new significance as Basbanes and his interlocutors try to pin down its value. That some readers respond favorably to these pivots of perspective is evident in a comment made by an reviewer named takingadayoff: “this is the sort of book I love to read—one in which I learn to see something in a whole new way, get answers to questions I never knew I had, and come away with a new set of questions.” If On Paper has a perfect reader, someone who represents the ideal audience that Basbanes probably had in mind, takingadayoff, I think, would be such a reader.

Editors and publishers intrigued by the book may wonder whether the author has anything to say about the world going paperless. Outside acknowledging the hype, he says little directly. But he does end the book with a chapter on the fallout of 9/11, when the skies over New York City literally rained paper. It was paper that gave first testament to the death and destruction that occurred that day. And in the days to follow, it was paper that covered the city in missing-person notices and, later, in memorials to those lost. Basbanes doesn’t tell us what we are to make of that, but he does invite us to reflect on it—the idea of all that paper.

ROBERT BROWN is a copyeditor with the Journal of Neurosurgery Publishing Group in Charlottesville, Virginia.