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On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (2013)
Book Reviews

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (2013)

Basbanes crafts as inviting an intro to such a comprehensive study as you’re likely to find.

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It’s a shame that paper, those fibrous sheets of densely packed cellulose, shares the cultural disadvantage of all ubiquitous things, namely its impact on civilization has become so integral that its often taken for granted. On Paper: The Everything Of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, the latest from author Nicholas A. Basbanes, earns the book’s playful subtitle, “by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac”, given his history writing on the subject.

He weaves a story that unfolds, pardon the pun, more like a document of purpose than scholarly textbook, tracing the history of paper from its arrival in ancient China to its critical role in hygienic products, touching on nearly everything in-between. Its a sojourn not just through history but humanity itself, a reaffirmation this most important of inventions is more than just a thing of utility or vessel of shared knowledge; that paper itself can be worth caring about.

Take the book itself, for example, printed and bound in the very stuff Basbanes writes about (unless, of course, you’re reading a digital version), hardbound and printed on creamy stock with rugged deckle edges. But most impressive is the book’s jacket, sheathed in plastic to protect what looks like a beautiful piece of parchment, designed by Jason Booher.

I reached and Booher was kind enough to reveal the truth: what looks like a gorgeous sample of Basbanes’ subject matter is actually a photo of handmade paper that Booher, with production manager Romeo Enriquez, cleverly composited a raised sculpted emboss to mimic both the texture and print bite in two-dimensions. The effect is strikingly realistic and a great example of skeuomorphism in practice.

Basbanes makes a congenial host on this fascinating travelogue, writing in a voice that makes what could have been a droll lecture infinitely more personable. His depictions of paper makers plying their craft, many still working by hand, of turning pulpy slurries into gorgeous reams of the real thing has all the delicious zing of a favorite recipe.

We learn that paper, in all its many forms and permutations, is crafted from living things, bonded cellulose fibers, performs a rare trick. Douglas Crane, former VP of Crane and Company, the exclusive producer of notes for the US Treasury, reminds us the “amazing thing about paper is that cellulose fibers are the only fibers in nature that are self-adhering.”

So does – or can – a single volume truly contain ‘everything’ about a 2,000+ year old material? Of course not, but what’s lovingly researched here is as inviting an introduction to such a comprehensive study as you’re likely to find.

Rarely a moment in recorded history occurs where paper hasn’t itself played a vital role, least of which has been documenting said history, and Basbanes traces the known history of paper in all its many forms, plucking out the juiciest samples for maximum entertainment purposes. From its most notable role as the heir to papyrus for official documentation and muckraking to a few of the more titillating bits of trivia, such as Kotex’s unfortunate first name (“Cellu-Naps”), or how toilet paper helped reduce dysentery in the military to statistical irrelevance. Its even being used as offensive warfare as recent as World War II.

Yes, paper warfare, well into the 20th Century, by the Japanese military.

Fu-Go, or “fire balloons”, were hydrogen balloons carrying a vicious cocktail of anti-personnel bombs and incendiary devices designed to ride air currents (i.e. the “river of air”), carrying them over 5,000 miles away to the American mainland.

What’s scary is just how effective the balloons were. Of the over 9,000 Fu-Go launched about 300 were recovered across North America, either shot down or failing to explode. While little material damage was reported the Fu-Go campaign resulted in the war’s only casualties on the American mainland when Elsie Mitchell and five Sunday School children, picnicking on Gearhart Mountain in Southern Oregon, were killed instantly when an undisturbed Fu-Go they came upon exploded on May 5, 1945.

A monument was later erected in the area commemorating it as the “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II.”

A final chapter details the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, revealing how much of our knowledge of what happened inside the Twin Towers came from the miscellany of paper items recovered from the tons of debris. Most potent is the heartbreaking story of Randy Scott, a financial worker, who perished while attempting to save a group of people by scribbling a desperate plea for help on a scrap of paper, tossing it from an eighty-fourth floor window of the south tower. The note was later recovered, blood-stained, with no further clues to the author’s identity.

It was only ten years later that Denise Scott, Randy’s widow, learned of her late husband’s final act of heroism when forensic analysis of the blood stained document confirmed its origins. With it a decade’s worth of questions were finally answered as Randy’s final message was delivered, a reminder how the physicality of paper carries with it the imprint and personality of its creator.

About the Author: Nathan Evans