On Paper

Cover image for On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanesby Nicholas A. Basbanes

ISBN 978-0-307-27964-4

“Without paper, there would be no printing, one of many instances in which scholars have lumped the pair together as allied technical advancements, with paper usually getting the shorter shrift of the two, especially in the impact they have had on the diffusion of culture.”

After a seemingly endless series of tiresome articles on the death of the codex, some people seem to be slowly coming around to the idea that the paper book might not be finished after all. As the paper and electronic mediums learn to coexist, journalist and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes brings us a history of paper, the substance that allowed printing and many other industries to flourish. Basbanes’ interest in paper includes both how it is made, and the many and varied uses to which it has been put during its two thousand year history. On Paper delves into the diverse use of paper products from bandages to paper cartridges for guns to toilet paper and beyond while also exploring the cultural significance of the medium. Basbanes’ exploration of paper as art ranges from origami to architectural blueprints, and even to the humble sketchbook that made the idea of thinking on paper possible for such imaginative thinkers as Leonardo Da Vinci and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Starting off his narrative with a wide lens, Basbanes examines early paper making in China and Japan, and their modern Asian descendants before tracing paper making to Europe via the Middle East, where it was used for both religion and commerce. He digs up little known artefacts from the history of paper, including the Japanese use of unmanned paper balloons to send bombs across the Pacific to the mainland United States during World War II, which the government and press covered up at the time. However, in the latter part of the book, Basbanes’ scope narrows and becomes more Amerocentric, focusing on early American paper making, the modern tree-based paper making industry in North America, and concluding with a chapter on the paper ephemera of 9/11. Asia and the Middle East, and even most of Europe, disappear almost entirely from view. Similarly, although Basbanes profiles a paper maker that focuses on recycled fibres, the environment does not figure much into his narrative.

Basbanes clearly takes his research seriously, approaching his work as a reporter, conducting extensive on-site visits and interviews with modern paper makers, craft and industrial alike, and a variety of scholars, historians, archivists and librarians with an interest in the medium. His excellent contacts and ability to gain access to private collections and even secure government facilities stand the reader in good stead. His extensive field research includes visiting Japanese and Chinese traditional paper makers, where he even carefully notes who has done the translating for each encounter, since his subjects usually do not speak English. Though the book was published in 2013, Basbanes worked on it for many years before it was finally printed, and his journalism led him to the doorstep of Tony Mendez, who effected the escape of six American diplomats from Iran mostly with fake and forged papers, long before Mendez’s story became widely known through his memoir and Ben Affleck’s film adaptation. Basbanes also pays a visit to the plant that produces the security paper on which American currency is printed, where they allow him to view all but the final step.

I grew up in a mill town, so I already knew a thing or two about paper production before reading On Paper, but I had never given much thought to the creation of paper from materials other than the wood pulp that is the industry standard today. However, early papers, particularly in Europe, were commonly made from linen rags, finally explaining the purpose of the rag-picking beggar in many a historical novel. The general requirement for something to be considered paper is that it be made of cellulose fibres, and many natural sources other than wood pulp fit that criteria. How we make paper has changed over the centuries and millennia, even as we continue to come up with novel uses for it, but our focus is always on the product, and rarely on the production. On Paper is a fascinating work in that it foregrounds the medium and the various purposes it has been put to, forcing the reader’s attention to something which, especially when reading, is generally ignored unless there is something wrong with it. But Basbanes goes so far as to draw attention to the very paper on which his own book is printed, profiling the manufacturer that provides the majority of high quality printing paper to American publishing houses. To read this book is to briefly undertake a fundamental shift in perspective from message to medium.

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