Friday, November 8, 2013

On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanes - Book Review

On Paper: The Everything of Its 2000 Year History by Nicholas Basbanes (Knopf, 2013, 449 pages, $35.00) accomplishes a feat you might not expect, turning the prosaic topic of the paper we use each day, and take for granted, into a topic of interest and importance. Beginning with paper's emergence in China before the Common Era began, the early chapters trace its development and the expansion of its use from China to Japan and then, into the Arab world around the time of Mohammed before following the path of Islam to Spain and thence into Europe. In the Arab world and then in the West, paper became the medium permitting language and ideas to move cheaply and with ease, progressing with other technological developments to replace earlier media like tablets and papyrus with an inexpensive and easy to use way to communicate ideas and spread them throughout the world. But language and words are only part of the story, and Basbanes wants to tell it all. Therein lies both the strength of this fascinating book and the weakness of its length. For just as the reader thinks the whole story has been told, the author inserts significant events into the story of paper which, while moving and worthy, stretch the book beyond reasonable parameters. Meanwhile, the irony of reading this book concerning paper on my Kindle during a period when one of the most pervasive uses of paper is disappearing, never left me. While many people speak to me of their love of the “feel” of a book, I must confess that the rigors of increasing age make the electronic book a wonderful adjunct to my intellectual life.

Making paper has from the beginning had a few simple requirements: cellulose, plentiful water, and a screen mold. The cellulose comes from plants, and the nature of the individual plant, its fiber length and ease of manipulation has always been a factor in its manufacture. Until the industrial revolution, making paper was a hand made project. Makers in China and Japan prized these qualities and requirements, making paper that was both beautiful and utilitarian. The shape and composition of the earliest paper structured the way Chinese characters were read, because the sheets were long and narrow, making it more effective to communicate Chinese horizontally. The paper thus manufactured was used to help create the mammoth bureacracy ruling China as well as to provide items of lightness and beauty for worship purposes. Later, because Islam valued calligraphy, paper became the ideal medium to copy and disseminate the Koran. During the middle ages, as parchment scrolls illuminated by monks in monestaries gave way to paper and then movable type make printing possible, knowledge became cheaper and more widespread, and techniques for making paper developed. Soon the best paper was made from cotton rags, only to be replaced by the still cheaper and more available wood pulp. The manufacture of paper tracked the ability of its makers to use machinary to make it in larger and larger amounts which, of course, became increasingly inexpensive.

What saves this book from tedium, however, is not the technology, but the people who make, manage, use, and love paper, not for what it necessarily carries, but for the medium itself. During this exposition on the many uses of paper, Basbanes travels to meet and interview people who love paper as much as they value what it communicates and the multiplicity of ways it's used. Imagine a book that treats Kleenex, Scott Tissue, and Tampax with the same seriousness that it treats the curators of important collections, the problems of preserving paper archives, and the beauty of great books. But Basbanes does this and manages to make these extremes palatable. We meet a Japanese National Treasure who is the seventh generation of his family to manufacture beautiful (and expensive) artisanal papers. We also come to know and respect the CEO of a major paper company who has kept his company vital, growing, and profitable by anticipating changes in the paper industry and maintaining the core values of his company simultaneously. Librarians are often pictured as dry and dusty intellectual bureacrats, more interested in maintaining than in celebrating the glories they protect. Basbane visits and interviews curators and librarians who value the content and the medium, allowing him to handle the books because their tactile quality is a significant part of what they are. We discover that Benjamin Franklin was not only a prolific writer and deep thinger, but one of the most important manufacturers of paper during the Colonial period. On Paper is filled with such people and incidents. 
Basbanes is so fascinated by his topic, and so thorough in making sure he covers everything, that he seems not to know when to stop. In the end, the story begins and ends with the making of beautiful, both visually and tactily, paper. But just as he reaches the end, he inserts a profile of an important paper executive and an moving account of the role paper played in memorializing and organizing the events and outcomes surrounding the disaster of 9/11. Both these pieces are effective writing, telling a story that needed to be told. They would have been more effective included within the bookends of the stories of quality paper manufacture or, better still, published in a different forum. In addition to being filled with mostly interesting details, On Paper represents a solid piece of copious scholarship covering a vast subject matter in an interesting and comprehensive fashion. The book is widely researched and carefully sourced.

Nicholas A. Basbanes
A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, Nicholas A. Basbanes graduated from Bates College in 1965, received a master of arts degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1968, and served as a naval officer aboard the aircraft carrier Oriskany in the Tonkin Gulf in 1969 and 1970. An award-winning investigative reporter during the early 1970s, Basbanes was literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram from 1978 to 1991, and for eight years after that wrote a nationally syndicated column on books and authors. He is a former president of the Friends of the Robert H. Goddard Library of Clark University, which has established a student book collecting competition in his honor.

On Paper: The Everything of its 2000 Year History by Nicholas Basbanes (Knopf, 2013, 449 pages, $35.00) is a useful and interesting volume for people who love books, but it expands beyond such narrow focus as itfunctions as both social and intellectual history. The writing is lively, combining Basbane's wide experience as both an investigative journalist and a scholar. I read On Paper as an electronic galley supplied to me by the publisher through Edelweiss: Beyond the Tree Line. I read it (irony of ironies) on my Kindle.