On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History [NOOK Book]

Overview

A Best Book of the Year: Mother JonesBloomberg News, National PostKirkus Reviews 

A consideration of all things paper—its invention that revolutionized human civilization; its thousand-fold uses (and misuses), proliferation, and sweeping influence on society; its makers, shapers, collectors, and pulpers—written by the admired cultural historian and author of the trilogy on all things book-related: A Gentle Madness; ...

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

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Overview

A Best Book of the Year: Mother JonesBloomberg News, National PostKirkus Reviews 

A consideration of all things paper—its invention that revolutionized human civilization; its thousand-fold uses (and misuses), proliferation, and sweeping influence on society; its makers, shapers, collectors, and pulpers—written by the admired cultural historian and author of the trilogy on all things book-related: A Gentle Madness; Patience and Fortitude (“How could any intelligent, literate person not just love this book?”—Simon Winchester); and A Splendor of Letters (“Elegant, wry, and humane”—André Bernard, New York Observer).

Nicholas Basbanes writes about paper, from its invention in China two thousand years ago to its ideal means, recording the thoughts of Islamic scholars and mathematicians that made the Middle East a center of intellectual energy; from Europe, by way of Spain in the twelfth century and Italy in the thirteenth at the time of the Renaissance, to North America and the rest of the inhabited world.

Basbanes writes about the ways in which paper has been used to record history, make laws, conduct business, and establish identities . . . He makes clear that without paper, modern hygienic practice would be unimaginable; that as currency, people will do almost anything to possess it . . . that the Industrial Revolution would never have happened without paper on which to draw designs and blueprints.

We see paper’s crucial role in the unfolding of historical events, political scandals, and sensational trials: how the American Revolution which took shape with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, began with the Stamp Act of 1765 . . . the Dreyfus Affair and the forged memorandum known as “the bordereau” . . . America’s entry into World War I with the Zimmerman Telegram . . . the Alger Hiss spy case and Whittaker Chambers’s testimony involving the notorious Pumpkin Papers . . . Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the scandal of Watergate.

Basbanes writes of his travels to get to the source of the story—to China, along the Burma Road, and to Japan, whose handmade paper, washi, is as much an expression of the human spirit as it is of craftsmanship . . . to Landover, Maryland, home of the National Security Agency and its one hundred million ultra secret documents, pulped by cryptologists and sent to be recycled as pizza boxes and egg cartons . . . to the Crane Paper mill of Dalton, Massachusetts, a seventh-generation family-owned enterprise, the exclusive supplier of paper for American currency since 1879 . . . and to the Kimberly-Clark mill in New Milford, Connecticut, manufacturer daily of one million boxes of Kleenex tissue and as many rolls of Scott kitchen towels.

Entertaining, illuminating, irresistible, a book that masterfully guides us through paper’s inseparability from human culture . . .




From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
12/01/2013
Like silk and gunpowder, paper was invented by the ancient Chinese. In this peripatetic account of all things paper, from the ancients to the present, journalist Basbanes (Every Book Its Reader) follows paper's trail as it slowly reached the West by way of the Silk Road, arriving in Europe almost 1,000 years after its invention (it didn't get to England until 1494). But Basbanes isn't just interested in paper's conventional and specialized history. His aim is to show how the material has penetrated all aspects of our lives (books, stamps, money, blueprints, packaging, and so on). Each episodic chapter takes the author on visits to the people who paper our lives, from industrial titans to craftspeople rediscovering ancient modes of making paper to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at ground zero tasked with preserving a record of that single day. VERDICT An unhurried book that will be enjoyed not only by bibliophiles, librarians, and archivists but by many readers engaged by the study of the past and present.—Stewart Desmond, New York
Publishers Weekly
Journalist and unapologetic bibliophile Basbanes (A Splendor of Letters) sets out to explore the nature of paper and returns with an absolutely fascinating tale. Told in an engaging, accessible manner, his coverage of the topic is a wide-ranging, freewheeling, authoritative look at one of society’s most ubiquitous products, from its origins in China nearly two millennia ago through its methodical spread across the world. Basbanes digs into the means by which paper is made and recycled, manufactured and repackaged, created for mass consumption and manipulated as art. He examines the implications of its cultural uses—in historical documents, architectural drawings, government paperwork, currency—and in doing so reveals how many roles, directly and indirectly, paper plays in our lives. Basbanes leaves no page unturned, and finishes with a poignant story of how a paper trail keeps the legacy of 9/11 fresh and has led to the further identification of some victims. Through interviews, personal visits, and extensive research, he has created an engrossing, essential book that no book lover should be without. The wealth of information Basbanes includes barely scratches the surface, but it whets the appetite and forces us to rethink how we view this versatile material. Agent: Glen Hartley, Writers Representatives (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“Fascinating. . . . Reminds us that bound up in the most mundane of objects, there is the potential for the deepest of human expression.” —Mother Jones

“I will confess to being an enormous Basbanes fan, but this volume may well be his best.” —Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg News 

“Buoyant, encyclopedic. . . . Celebrates paper in all its forms.” —The New Yorker

"A prodigious and endlessly fascinating tome. . . . In Basbanes’ capable hands, the assembled elements become amusing, fascinating, and at times profound. He is the bibliophile’s Bill Bryson and takes the reader on a journey of discovery about an object we take for granted but cannot do without." —Santa Fe New Mexican

"Clear and necessary. . . . Basbanes is a power hitter whose grand slam brings home other recent appreciators of paper." —The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Fascinating. . . . Nicholas Basbanes is an especially congenial writer, a quality he displayed memorably in A Gentle Madness. . . . He does it again most pleasurably in On Paper, a wide-ranging investigation into the ‘everything’ of that ubiquitous and indispensable construction of cellulose fibers whose history paralleled—and made possible—the rise of civilization.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Basbanes makes you love books.” —Scott Turow

“As Basbanes’s book shows, paper, that most remarkable technology, has always been the most effective medium for capturing what is both practical and passionate about being human.” —The Wilson Quarterly

 “[Basbanes] has poured his heart and soul into this splendid survey of a beautiful human invention.” —National Post

“Fascinating. . . . [A] wide-ranging, engaging and enchanting book.” —Tulsa World

“An erudite, mesmerizing story about how something we consider so everyday has shaped our lives. In our age of supposedly dying print, Basbanes’s book is at once a compelling scholarly achievement and a provocative invitation to reconsider and celebrate what is truly one of the wonders of the world, that fragile yet enduring skin upon which humanity’s knowledge and vision are tattooed.” —Bradford Morrow, author of Trinity Fields

“A wonderful, fascinating and timely book on a subject some have prematurely declared obsolete. Basbanes reminds us of the vital role the invention of paper has played through the centuries in the dissemination of knowledge and ideas. His stories that run the gamut, from the way paper  is made to a poignant sheet of paper floating down to the sidewalk on September 11, 2001. Not to be missed.” —Meryle Secrest, author of Duveen

“Encyclopedic. [Basbanes] writes informatively about everything from paper trails to red tape, from the technical issues of papermaking to the high art of origami. . . . Readers will likely finish On Paper newly appreciative of not only paper’s flexibility and function but also its ubiquity. They will also likely conclude: A paperless society? Not in my children’s children’s lifetime.” —BookPage

“An absolutely fascinating tale. . . . An engrossing, essential book that no book lover should be without.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

“A delightful and intrepid guide in this capacious history of paper. . . . A lively tale told with wit and vigor.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Every facet of this celebration of paper is engrossing and thought-provoking. . . . Paper, Basbanes avers, is nothing less than an embodiment and conveyance of humanity.” —Booklist (starred)

“Pretty much irresistible.” —Library Journal
 

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-01
Self-proclaimed bibliophile Basbanes (About the Author: Inside the Creative Process, 2010, etc.) proves a delightful and intrepid guide in this capacious history of paper. As the author quickly discovered, paper is more than merely a surface for print; it is an indispensible product with connections to war (paper cartridges changed 17th-century firearms), health (tissues, toilet paper and disposable bandages) and politics (printed documents were central to the Stamp Act, Watergate, and countless other laws and scandals). Just as we are "awash in a world of paper," Basbanes writes, "we are awash in a world of paper clichés": "a house of cards," a "paper thin margin," "a tissue of lies," "pulp fiction," etc. Identity is confirmed by showing one's "papers," and we ascertain truth by comparing whatever is "on paper" to reality. Basbanes' research took him around the world: to China, where papermaking first began nearly 2,000 years ago; Japan, where artisans still practice traditional methods; and across America, including the Crane Paper mill, manufacturers of paper for all American currency, the Kimberly-Clark company, which took their World War I overstock of cotton surgical dressings and invented Kotex, and publishing-stock maker P.H. Glatfelter, which is countering the rise of the e-book by providing paper for postage stamps, Hallmark cards and tea bags. Central to Basbanes' history are people--artists, crafters, curators, librarians, origami makers, writers and recipients of letters--and surprising revelations. In 14th-century Europe, for example, the invention of the spinning wheel led to an increase in linen production, which led to an increase in rags, which lowered the price of paper, which caused Johannes Gutenberg to see that investing in mechanical printing would be a good idea. Only several hundred years later was paper more cheaply made from wood pulp. As his impressive bibliography and notes section suggest, Basbanes has investigated seemingly every detail of paper's 2,000-year history. A lively tale told with wit and vigor.
The Barnes & Noble Review

"Papers, please," said the man in the uniform, and don't take too much comfort in the "please." Before we had those for- better-or-worse unique biometric indicators that prove who we say we are — fingerprint scans and voice recognition devices and DNA tests — we had paper, paper proof, beautifully calligraphed letters of safe conduct that morphed over time into high-tech passports — holograms, security threads, photographs so baboonish you wished they were fake — which with enough entry and exit stamps and visas are still items of beauty and deliverance, facilitating transport across space and mind.

For as the self-confessed bibliophiliac Nicholas Basbanes points out in his natty, bright, and good-humored On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, paper has been the mode of choice to transport information — personal letters, last wills and testaments, transit documents, court summons — for century upon century, and is still the go- to substance when, as a government worker, soldier, or journalist, there is need to "cover your ass with paper" — though there's always a risk that same paper trail will burn its way back to you, and your backside.

Yet paper's existential impact has been no less profound: as a medium allowing us party to the wonderful turbulence from which ideas emerge — the blinding insight recorded on a diner napkin or book margin; as an enemy of oblivion, it opens a window into the creative process of embellished doodling: "In Leonardo's [da Vinci's] case, it also relies on the serendipity of the image that appears, which may suggest other things. There are famous passages where he talks about seeing images in stains on walls, so he realizes that by crashing things down on paper, the kind of graphic collisions that result can themselves suggest inventions" (Basbanes quoting Oxford University's Thomas Kemp).

Anyone who has ever conducted research at a serious archive - - and that can be a small-town historical society as well as the National Archives — has likely felt the power of paper, the color and smell of the fiber as well as the import of its cargo. Hold the raw notes of the artist, composer, engineer, mapmaker, mathematician, inventor, bomb maker — this is paper at its most dynamic, sensitive, and aware, working its way forward for the creator through the eddies of line and thought, and for the researcher a way back to genesis. Here is paper as witness, as testimony, to human deeds: the Dreyfus memorandum, the Zimmerman telegram, Whitaker Chambers's Pumpkin Papers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's nuclear design sketches, the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks.

But first, you have got to make the stuff, and it was a long time coming, after the cave walls, clay tablets, and papyrus, after all the many wrong turns, nice tries, and dead ends — banana peels, walnut shells, seaweed, moss, cabbage, thistle, tulips, nettles, potatoes — for a substance as rudimentary as no-knead bread: clean water, cellulose fiber, and a mold. Basbanes elegantly charts paper's textbook diffusion — as gratifying as tracing the London cholera epidemic to that water pump in Soho — from its origins in China in the second century A.D. (although fragmentary archaeological evidence recovered from a Shaanxi tomb dates to about 140 B.C.). First the technique headed east to Korea and then Japan (where it hit pay dirt, as anyone who has marveled at Japanese paper works will agree), and westward too, along the Silk Road to Central Asia, to Samarkand, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Fez, jumping to Spain in 1056, then throughout western and central Europe until it crossed the Atlantic to the eastern seaboard of the New World in 1690, the same year the process reached Australia and the remote oceanic islands. Later it reached Texas.

Paper as an art form and paper as history are glories — there are terrific chapters on origami and its votaries, the story of rag to paper pulp to feed the needs of American colonists to behave seditiously in their newspapers, and how Islamic countries forsook the printing press out of reverence to calligraphy (they may also have taken exception to the theft of mummies' winding sheets for linen fiber to make paper) and paid the technological price — but Basbanes also gives due consideration to the everyday paper landscape, the 20,000 commercial uses, like rolling papers. Where would we be without Kleenex and Kotex and, most certainly, toilet paper? Basbanes is only too happy to tell you: back feeding the old "fecal-oral route," that's where, and playing conduit to typhoid, dysentery, and a whole ruinous family of infectious diseases.

Paper is spectral — now a ghostly lantern sent aloft to the delight of parted ancestors, and now a balloon of mulberry paper ferrying an incendiary bomb 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to burn an American city. And, in Basbanes's affective closing chapter, paper is memory. Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood between Gold and Pearl streets in a blizzard of paper, as weird and ominous as a rain of frogs. Somewhere in that paper storm, now saved in a memorial museum, is the last image in Basbanes's book, a scrawled note: "84th Floor west office 12 People trapped."

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385350440
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 325,322
  • File size: 10 MB

Meet the Author

Nicholas A. Basbanes is an award-winning investigative journalist and was literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Smithsonian, and he is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Basbanes lives in North Grafton, Massachusetts, with his wife.
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Read an Excerpt

Preface

As a writer of nonfiction, I have devoted a good deal of my life to the study of books in every conceivable context, so a work now on the stuff of transmission itself should come as no surprise to anyone. But in the end, these venerable containers of shared wisdom were merely the launching pad for what became a far wider and much deeper adventure of inquiry, one that still has me turning up stories and ideas that in a world without limits would demand inclusion in these pages—it is that compelling a subject.
 
Beyond paper’s obvious utility as a writing surface, its invention in China during the early years of the modern era made possible the introduction of printing, with the first known devices being stamps made from carved wooden blocks, a process known today as xylography (literally, writing with wood). Not long after the Arab world learned to make paper from the Chinese in the eighth century, the Middle East became a center of intellectual energy, with paper providing the ideal means of recording the thoughts and calculations of Islamic scholars and mathematicians. Making its first toehold in Europe by way of Spain late in the eleventh century, the process moved in the thirteenth to Italy, which became, at about the same time, the cradle of what in later years would be known as the Renaissance. From Europe it made its way to North America and the rest of the inhabited world.
 
The inexorable spread of this versatile material has been told in bits and pieces by a number of paper specialists whose works are thoroughly referenced in my bibliography. While I am certainly mindful of the chronological sweep of this ubiquitous product, a conventional timeline of its discovery and adoption is not the central thrust of this book, even though one of the goals of Part I is nonetheless to provide a selective overview of its glorious history.
 
Instead, my driving interest points more to the idea of paper, one that certainly takes in the twin notions of medium and message but that also examines its indispensability as a tool of flexibility and function. The laser physicist and master origami folder Robert Lang, whom you will meet in Chapter 15, lives by the credo that “anything is possible in origami,” which can pretty much be said about paper itself. Paper is light, absorbent, strong, plentiful, and portable; you can fold it, mail it, coat it with wax and waterproof it, wrap gunpowder or tobacco in it, boil tea in it. We have used paper in abundance to record our history, make our laws, conduct our business, correspond with our loved ones, decorate our walls, and establish our identities.
 
When it comes to pure utility, modern hygienic practice is unimaginable without paper; when used as currency, people will move heaven and earth to possess it. In realms of the intellect, every manner of scientific inquiry begins as a nonverbal spark in the mind, and more often than not that first burst of perception is visualized more fully on a sheet of paper. When it’s used as an instrument of the generative process, innovators of every persuasion can sketch and tinker away on it at will, design buildings and machines on it, compose music and create poetry on it. As a “paper revolution” swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, architects and engineers transformed the manner and the means of the living landscape. The Industrial Revolution in particular is hard to conceive of without its precisely reproduced instruction sheets to guide assembly crews in their various assignments.
 
The word virtual has become, in the computer age, one way of describing a simulated reality that exists quite apart from the concrete world, an alternative existence that is not just a copy but a substitute for the real thing. In the expression of imagery, there is nothing at all new about the concept; people have endeavored to create likenesses of themselves and their surroundings for millennia, with examples to be found in cave paintings prepared thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, many of them impressive to this day for their artistry and execution. By no means unique in this regard, paper has nonetheless been around for centuries, nobly fulfilling that function.
 
When the seventeenth-century patron of the arts Cassiano dal Pozzo set out to assemble a comprehensive collection of visual knowledge, he commissioned a number of prominent artists to make what turned out to be seven thousand watercolors, drawings, and prints in fields that included botany, art, architecture, geology, zoology, and ornithology. Dispersed today among four major institutional collections, what was arguably the world’s first virtual library is known now as the Paper Museum. In more recent times, lithography and photography—the words literally mean “writing with stone” and “writing with light”— used paper as the surface of choice to create and distribute surrogate images.
 
As a force in shaping historical events, paper rarely draws attention to itself, yet its role is evident to varying degrees in scenario after scenario. One telling case in point is the introduction of human flight during the eighteenth century in France, when the Montgolfier brothers used several layers of paper made in the family mill to line the inner skin of the world’s first hot-air balloon. Another example is the American Revolution; historians generally agree that the run-up to the Battles of Lexington and Concord can be said to have begun with the Stamp Act of 1765, which was all about taxing the many ways colonists had come to rely on paper documents in their daily lives. A century later, the refusal of Hindu and Muslim mercenary soldiers in the employ of the British East India Company to bite open paper cartridges greased with animal fat sparked a bloody insurrection known variously today as the Sepoy Mutiny and the First War of Indian Independence.
 
A roll call of political scandals, international incidents, and sensational trials to have paper documents at some point play a crucial role in the unfolding of events would have to include the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s and early 1900s, involving a forged memorandum known as the bordereau; America’s entry into World War I, with the Zimmermann Telegram; the Alger Hiss spy case of the late 1940s, which involved the damning testimony of Whittaker Chambers regarding the notorious Pumpkin Papers; the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, with its purloined sketch of a nuclear implosion device that was crucial in sending both off to the electric chair; and Watergate, precipitated by Daniel Ellsberg’s brazen release in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers. And while the influence of computers is everywhere apparent, it is instructive to note that the earliest machines of any functional significance processed their data on punched paper cards, and that the progenitor of all electronic printing devices—the universal stock ticker—used narrow spools of newsprint to give real-time readouts of financial transactions, revolutionizing forever the way business would be conducted on Wall Street.
 
Not only are we awash in a world of paper; we are awash in a world of paper clichés. George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000 by a “paper thin” margin, the deceit that surrounded the Enron fiasco was built on a “tissue of lies,” and the fragile structure that subsequently collapsed was a “house of cards.” To beat someone to a “pulp” is to inflict appalling injury. To “map out” a plan for something is to come up with a spe- cific course of action. Day in and day out, we are mired in “red tape,” a corollary of being “buried under a mountain of paper,” while a “paper tiger” is either a wimp or a weakling or a fraud, take your pick. I readily admit to playing with a few of them in this book—something being “not worth the paper it is printed on” was irresistible, and it provided the premise for the chapter I call “Face Value.”
 
At the very time I was completing the first draft of this manuscript, the Boston Red Sox—a team I have been following obsessively since my father took me to Fenway Park for the first time in 1953—finished the most spectacular flop in the history of Major League Baseball, squandering a seemingly insurmountable lead of nine games with less than a month to go in the 2011 season and finishing entirely out of the playoffs. Making their collapse doubly painful were predictions made at the start of the season that, with fifteen highly paid All-Stars in the lineup, Boston was by far the best team to take the field that year. Sports Illustrated had picked the Red Sox to win one hundred games and handily dispatch the San Francisco Giants in the World Series; even seasoned sportswriters in New York, home of the archrival Yankees, were impressed by their prospects for a championship.
 
“I can see why people are talking about our going back to the World Series,” one of those highly paid Red Sox, J. D. Drew, had told Dan Shaughnessy, the estimable baseball columnist for the Boston Globe, as opening day drew near in April. “On paper, we have that kind of team.” It was that blasé comment of presumed inevitability—all of it worked out abstractly on an imaginary notation pad—that gave Shaughnessy reason to pause and comment forebodingly, with uncanny prescience, “But it never plays out the way it does on paper, does it?”
 
At a meeting in Hanoi in June 2012, American secretary of defense Leon Panetta presented to Vietnamese minister of national defense Phung Quang Thanh a small maroon diary taken from a fallen North Vietnamese soldier by a U.S. Marine in 1966. In return, Thanh turned over to Panetta a passel of personal letters removed from the body of Army sergeant Steve Flaherty of the 101st Airborne Division after he was killed in action in 1969. The Washington Post summed up the arti- fact exchange by noting that these two relics, from a time when the two countries “were bitter enemies,” had in an instant become “symbols of the evolving U.S.-Vietnamese relationship”—and each was recorded on otherwise unremarkable sheets of paper.
 
My research model for this book has been fairly straightforward, and should be apparent in each chapter. I traveled in China along the Burma Road, because Old China is where the story begins, and I proceeded in due course to Japan, because that was the only place where I could meet with a Living National Treasure papermaker. I spent seven months trying to get a tour of the National Security Agency, in Fort Meade, Maryland, because the cryptologists there pulp one hundred million ultrasecret documents a year (give or take) and send them off for recycled use as pizza boxes and egg cartons. I spent two days at the Crane Paper mill, in Western Massachusetts, because, as Willie Sutton is purported to have famously said, “that’s where the money is”—or, more to the point, that is where all the paper for American currency is made. Since the idea of “disposability” is very much a paper theme, too, the same goes for a Kimberly-Clark mill in Connecticut, where close to a million boxes of Kleenex tissue, and as many rolls of Scott kitchen towels, are made every day. If there’s a common thread to be discerned, it is what Graham Greene sagely called, in one of his novels, “the human factor.”
 
A few years ago, the British Association of Paper Historians noted in a description of its activities that there are something on the order of twenty thousand commercial uses of paper in the world today, and that the organization’s members are interested in each and every one of them. Rest easy, dear reader: I am not about to explore twenty thou- sand different uses of paper here. But if that claim is accurate—and one Pennsylvania company you will meet in Chapter 17 alone has a line of one thousand different products for its output—then the paper- less society we hear being bandied about so much today may not be as imminent as some people suggest. The words of the great Fats Waller seem especially relevant on this point: “One never knows, do one?”




From the Hardcover edition.
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Interviews & Essays

A conversation with

Nick Basbanes

author of

ON PAPER: THE EVERYTHING OF ITS TWO-THOUSAND YEAR HISTORY

Q: What inspired you to write ON PAPER?

A: After writing eight books about every conceivable aspect of books and book culture, it seemed logical that I turn to the stuff of transmission itself, and for more than five hundred years in the West — and much longer than that in Asia and the Middle East — the medium of choice has been paper. The actual idea to write a book about paper, though, was suggested to me in 2002 by MacArthur Fellow Timothy Barrett , during a speaking visit I made to the Iowa Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. I spent several days there with Tim — a world renowned authority in the field of hand papermaking — and he regaled me with stories about its history that I found irresistible. The best part about it, from my standpoint, was that no book quite like the decidedly eclectic one I ultimately envisioned had ever been done before. This is not a formal chronology by any means, but a cultural history that takes in the full sweep of this remarkably versatile material, and discusses the impact it has had on the shaping of history.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your research? Did you know when you began the project what an adventure it would take you on - from southwest China and Japan to such places as a pulping mill at the National Security Agency and a Kimberly-Clark mill where a million boxes of Kleenex are made every day?

A: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a book that would truly "cover the waterfront," as the old Billie Holiday song goes, where paper used for books and for writing would be just one part of a much larger story. I wanted ON PAPER to stand as something of a bookend to my first book, A Gentle Madness, doing for paper what that book did for bibliomania. I am a firm believer in narrative and the power of story-telling, which for me means going to the source for my material whenever possible, wherever the source may be.

The China trip was especially interesting, three weeks in Yunnan Province along the old Burma Road and in the bamboo forests of Sichuan Province, seeking out villages where paper is still made today by hand in much the same way it was when it was invented there two thousand years ago. I traveled to Japan for the specific purpose of meeting with a Living National Treasure papermaker, and while I was there I paid my respects at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Papermaking. I really live, as a writer, for the personal interview, and I was fortunate to make contact with a striking variety of fascinating people. For a lengthy segment on Leonardo daVinci, I talked at length with Martin Kemp, the Oxford University scholar who has spent more time with Leonardo's remarkable notebooks than any person alive. For a chapter on bureaucratic paperwork — what we all know as red tape — I spent a morning with David Ferriero, the National Archivist of the United States, and custodian of 80 billion pieces of paper. Two days at the Crane Paper Company, the dean of American papermakers, were highlighted by an interview with Douglas Crane, the seventh generation of his family to work actively in the business, and the person in charge of making all the paper for American currency.

I was keenly interested in the whole concept of recycling, which meant a trip to a mill in New Jersey where up to a million rolls of toilet paper a day are made from recycled Manhattan office paper. I can't tell you what a thrill it was to hold in my hands letters written by John Adams to his wife Abigail, and she to him, or to touch a First Folio of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library. That sort of experience never gets old.

Q: Can you explain why you chose to open your book by recounting the three-week research trip to southwestern China?

A: The beauty of paper is that we know with some degree of certainty when it was invented, where it was invented, and who invented it. Indeed, the Chinese regard paper as one of their four outstanding inventions of antiquity, giving it top billing with gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and printing. They even have a traditional date for its formal presentation at court, 105 A.D., and credit an official in the Imperial Court named Cai Lun with introducing the process. Recent scholarship strongly suggests, however, that the formula was developed over several hundred years prior to that, with the earliest verifiable examples dating from about 140 B.C. Paper was considered an immediate success, and for five hundred years the secret to making it remained a closely guarded proprietary craft.

Q: Can anyone date the first appearance of an actual book?

A: By "actual book," I assume you mean a "book on paper," in which case the earliest known printed book to have an actual date on it is The Diamond Sutra, from 868 A.D., printed on paper from carved wooden blocks, and produced more than five hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable metal type in Europe. It was found in a cave in the Gobi Desert early in the twentieth century by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, and is now in the British Library. But books have taken many shapes and forms over the centuries, the earliest ones written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating to about 3000 B.C. Others have been written on cured animal skins known as parchment and vellum, on laminated strips of a marsh reed known as papyrus, others have been incised on bamboo, silk, metal sheets, pottery, stone — whatever material was available at the time. But once introduced as a viable medium — and once the rudiments for making it from the pulverized fibers of a vegetative source were understood — paper transformed everything. It was cheap to make, it was light, pliable, resilient, portable, foldable — truly a miracle invention with a multitude of applications.

Q: This is a big question, I know, but what do you think have been paper's greatest contributions to history?

A: I think the fact that paper has been the medium upon which so much of our history, our literature, and our cultural heritage has been recorded for close to a thousand years, and the medium upon which each generation over that span has been able to communicate with those that follow, has to come first. Another would be the role paper has played as a tool of the creative process, with generous attention given to the notebooks of Leonard da Vinci, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison. But paper has done so many other remarkable things, it is almost impossible to single out one function as being stronger than all the others. Architecture as we know it today, for instance, or engineering in which plans must be drawn precisely to scale, the making of photographic images the emergence in Ottoman times of the modern bureaucracy, are unthinkable without the availability of this remarkable material.

Q: You write about the Iran hostage crisis, an event that was recently featured in the Oscar-winning film ARGO. What do you find fascinating about this incident in relation to paper, and what does it say about the role paper has played in major political incidents throughout history?

A: Part of my original plan for this book was to have a chapter discussing documents as a form of identity verification, the working premise being that more often than not we are who and what our papers say we are. To that end, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the roll documents play in the world of intelligence. A couple of people I know who have been active in that world put me in touch with Antonio "Tony" Mendez, who is legendary in the intelligence community for his work as a master of disguise, in particular his master-minding of the CIA operation code-named "Argo," which became the basis of the film. What Mendez outlined in detail for me was how so much of that operation depended on the preparation of persuasive identity documents, film scripts, and other supporting materials known in the spy business as "pocket litter" in order to succeed. In addition to the "Argo" operation, he discussed other projects he has worked on which required his distinctive skills, as he put it, as a "master forger." One of the fun parts of this book was to determine exactly how paper has figured into so many major historical events and incidents; the Stamp Act of 1765, to cite one compelling example, was all about taxing the many ways that paper had become essential to the conducting of daily life in Colonial America. The Nuremberg War Crimes trials were prosecuted almost entirely on the strength of damning documents, and not on the testimony of witnesses. The Pentagon Papers and the roll they played in what later became known as the Watergate Scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon is yet another instance.

Q: Why did you decide to include a discussion of origami in the book?

A: I had heard early in my research about Michael LaFosse, a master origami artist whose work is in museums all over the world, who makes his own paper by hand. So that interested me in and of itself. Once I profiled him, it made sense to also include the California laser physicist Robert Lang and the MIT professor Erik Demaine, both pioneers in "computational origami." What I like most about origami conceptually is that many millions of people enjoy doing it, from children in kindergarten all the way up to brilliant scientists like Lang and Demaine. It's sort of like book collecting in that respect — people can participate at any level of sophistication, from books found at fl ea markets for pennies, all the way up to Shakespeare First Folios that go for millions of dollars. What is especially appealing about origami is that everyone has to play by the same rules — one sheet of paper, no scissors, no glue, no string, just folding, and lots of imagination. It's one of the recreational aspects of paper that I thought deserved a place in my book.

Q: How did you decide to include the event of September 11, 2001 in your discussion about paper?

A: As I watched the events of that frightful day unfold, I was struck by the surreal sight of all that paper spouting so copiously out of the Twin Towers into the blue morning sky as they crumbled to the ground. Later, when it became evident that some of the only artifacts of any significance to survive the terrorist attacks were going to be paper documents of every conceivable description, I felt it would make for an especially powerful way to conclude the book. I decided to write about it in a manner that would proceed from the most commonplace specimens up to and including some of the most profound. One item I learned about was the frayed business card of a construction inspector for the Port Authority that had been found on a windowsill in Brooklyn, and it turned out that this man had been responsible for saving the lives of more than fifty people before time ran out for him and those who were still left behind. Another was a single piece of common bond paper that had been picked up on the street outside the South Tower minutes before that building collapsed, a poignant plea for help from someone on the eighty-fourth floor that was unsigned, but was not without clues as to its authorship. I regard telling that story as sensitively as I possibly could to be by far the most challenging aspect of the chapter for me, since it spoke, in an uncommonly eloquent way, for all of the victims of that horrible day.

Q: You write that "the paperless society we hear being bandied about so much today may not be as imminent as some people suggest." How so?

A: There's a wonderful quote I use as an epigraph to one of the chapters, an observation made in the 1980s by a historian of libraries named Jesse Shera. "The paperless society," he said, "is about as probable as the paperless bathroom." Many functions of paper definitely are on the wane, and we all know what they are, books, newspapers, correspondence, record-keeping and the like. But those account for just a fraction of the functions that paper facilitates, currency, toilet paper, photographic prints, wrapping paper, cardboard packaging, labels, food containers — it's all paper — and I don't see many substitutes for those products immediately on the horizon.

Q: What role do you see paper playing in the future?

A: There's a company based in Pennsylvania, P. H. Glatfelter, that has more than tripled its business in barely a decade, and is now a $1.6 billion-a-year company, and they did it by diversifying to the point that they make paper for more than a thousand different commercial uses — paper for tea bags, postage stamps, greeting cards, candy wrappers, copying machines, while also supplying high-quality paper for use in the publishing industry. The companies that are going to survive and prosper, I believe, are the companies that have the will and the perception to seek out and serve a variety of niche markets such as these.

Q: The smart phone has become our generation's diary, newspaper, novel, notepad, planner and so much more. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks to this transition?

A: I think future generations may regret the absence of hard-copy diaries, journals, correspondence and the like from people living an exclusively electronic kind of life. These are artifacts that give us so much information about the way people think and how they live at a particular point in time, and to eliminate them as a resource for future scholars is a palpable loss. Think of what we would have missed if John and Abigail Adams had texted each other digitally during the years of the Revolution, and not written the kind of letters that truly span the centuries, or if their son, John Quincy Adams, had not kept a daily diary from the time he was twelve to a few days before he died in 1848 at the age of eighty. I write in my chapter on governmental red tape how the National Archives is working to develop reliable ways to insure that electronic records are stored in ways that they will be preserved permanently in standard formats, and "readable" to future researchers. In fact that's the biggest challenge professional archivists face today, the long-term conservation of "born digital" materials.

Q: As more and more people go fully digital, is it important to still "keep a hard copy"?

A: I know, certainly, that the National Archives in Washington still makes hard copies of many important documents, and that the hard copy in those instances becomes the archival copy. I know, too, that after the ballot fiasco in Florida in the presidential election of 2000, many states turned to a paperless touch-screen format, only to discover that there was no concrete record of how people voted, and that it was vulnerable to fraud. Now they are using what are known as optical scanning devices that tabulate votes electronically, but keep a hard paper copy as a safeguard against tampering.

Q: What did you discover in your research that most surprised you?

A: I was surprised most by just how versatile a material paper is, and how ubiquitous it is in our daily lives. The people at the Glatfelter company I mentioned earlier say that the average American handles, on average, about thirty different objects every day that have been made with their paper — envelopes you get in the mail, stamps you affix to a letter, the label on a beer bottle, a Hallmark greeting card, a deck of playing cards, etc. — and they are by no means even close to being the largest papermaking company based in the United States. International Paper's net sales last year alone were $27.8 billion, an increase of $1.8 billion from the previous year.

Some of the fascinating facts on...

ON PAPER; THE EVERYTHING OF ITS TWO-THOUSAND YEAR HISTORY

• From the time it was invented in China two thousand years ago, the basic formula for making paper has remained unchanged, and still relies on three basic elements — water, cellulose fiber, and a screen mold to form the sheets.

• Though the word "paper" is derived from the word "papyrus," the only similarity between the two is that both have a pliable surface and both are derived from a vegetative source. Papyrus sheets were a lamination of strips cut from a reed that grew along the banks of the Nile; paper can be made from the pulverized fibers of any plant, the process made possible by a type of molecular cohesion common to all plants known as hydrogen bonding.

• Cryptologists at The National Security Agency pulp one hundred million ultra secret documents a year (give or take) and send them off for recycled use as pizza boxes and egg cartons.

• The National Archives and Records Administration estimates that it is the custodian of some ten billion separate files comprising about eighty billion pieces of paper.

• Figures kept by the War Department during the Civil War disclosed that the Union Army purchased more than a billion paper cartridges for use by the Union Army; the Confederacy is thought to have used a comparable amount.

• The British Association of Paper Historians has asserted that there are something on the order of twenty thousand commercial uses of paper in the world today.

• The most money ever paid for a single piece of paper was $47.9 million in 2009 for a drawing made between 1508 and 1511 by the Italian master of the Renaissance known as Raphael. Called "Head of a Muse," the sketch was used as the basis for one of four frescos commissioned by Pope Junius II to decorate the Stanzadella Segnatura in the Vatican

• In November 2011, a pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman was sold for $2.16 million at auction, or more than twenty-one million times its original newsstand price of ten cents when first issued in1938.

• In a World War I memoir published in 1920, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the defeated chief of the General Staff , decried the use by Allied forces of "a weapon which had never been employed on such a scale and so ruthlessly in the past," a "shower of pamphlets," as he described them — or propaganda leaflets — that convinced his men on the front lines that there was no point in continuing the struggle.

• During the height of the German hyperinflation crisis of the Weimar Republic, more than 130 printing firms printed reichsmarks nonstop. Some five hundred quintillion in total currency was in circulation at the time of the collapse in 1923, or 5 times 10 to the 20th power.

• In the last dozen years over 120 paper mills in North America have closed, and one-third of the workforce was idled?some 240,00 jobs lost in the United States and Canada.

• American companies produce over seven billion rolls of toilet paper annually, or 31.8 rolls per person. The average consumer, according to Proctor & Gamble, uses fifty-seven sheets a day, or just under 21,000 a year.

• In 2011, Kimberly-Clark used nearly 750 thousand metric tons of primary wood fiber sourced from natural forests. The company has pledged to reduce the amount of fiber from natural forests in half by 2025, an amount equivalent to the fiber used to manufacture over three and a half billion rolls of toilet paper

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