Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
—from the world’s oldest dated text, a copy of the Diamond Sutra made “by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long” (May 11, 868)
The sixteen-foot Diamond Sutra scroll was discovered in 1900 among the artifacts in the Dunhuang Caves, (also Mogao Caves or ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’) in China. The scroll counsels that the path to transcendence lies in an understanding of the non-abiding aspect of existence. The excerpt above (translation by A. F. Price), is from the concluding section; after receiving this wisdom from the Buddha, the assembled monks “and the whole realms of Gods, Men and Titans, were filled with joy by His teaching, and, taking it sincerely to heart they went their ways.”
There is an ironic tension implicit in the existence of the Diamond Sutra — the world’s oldest dated message, brought to us on one of the world’s oldest and enduring mediums, telling us that nothing lasts. This tension runs throughout On Paper, in which Nicholas A. Basbanes guides us through two thousand years of product history, beginning with the first paper-mash made in China in 105 AD, reportedly “from the bark of trees, hemp, old rags and fishing nets.” In his first chapter, Basbanes is off to Yunnan Province to see how the Chinese continue their milleniums-old handmade craft today; in his last chapter, he visits with the keepers of the 9/11 paper record — the money, memorandums and other messages that rained from the sky, covering ground zero and blown throughout the city. Approaching the thousands of recovered items as a cultural text, Basbanes pauses over one page in particular, this now on display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and so an enduring testimony to what does and yet does not perish:
It pictured a single sheet of common bond copy paper, largely intact and bearing a dark red smear at one extremity on the left. …There were seven words written on it, scrawled out hastily in pen: “84th floor west office 12 people trapped.”
But book history contains a counter-tradition, tied to this week through the Nazi book-burning campaign, which fanned into flame on May 10, 1933 with an initial wave of bonfires throughout Germany. There are dozens of such events documented in the historical record, all motivated by some sort of rage for intellectual and cultural control. In The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer describes how yet another “libricide” was prevented in Mali in 2012, when a network of book-lovers managed to thwart the plans of Muslim extremists to destroy hundreds of thousands of items, many of them priceless:
He shifted nervously in the front passenger seat of the four-wheel-drive vehicle as it approached the southern exit of the city. Down the tarmac road, in the pink light of the desert morning, two gunmen stood beside a checkpoint made from a rope strung across a pair of oil barrels. They were lean men with beards and turbans, Kalashnikov semiautomatic rifles slung over their shoulders. Take a deep breath, he told himself. Smile. Be respectful. …He cast a glance at the rear compartment. There, covered with blankets, lay five padlocked steamer trunks, each one filled with treasure: hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, including some from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Golden Age of Timbuktu.
In The Republic of Imagination Azar Nafisi reminds us that libraries can be destroyed from within, their books consumed not by fire but the dust of unreading. Part memoir and part essay, Nafisi argues that America’s best defense against “a culture of manipulation” which dictates “not only what we eat, wear, read, and want but what and how we dream,” is to arm ourselves with Twain’s Huck Finn, Carson McCullers’s Mick Kelly and a bookshelf of others: “We need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music, and the arts: we need to retrieve the third eye of the imagination.”