Talking Reams: A Q&A with Nicholas Basbanes, Author of On Paper
In his book On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, award-winning investigative journalist 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. Here, we talk with him about his inspiration and more.
EVERYDAY EBOOK: What inspired you to write On Paper?
NICHOLAS BASBANES: 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.
EE: Can anyone date the first appearance of an actual book?
NB: 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.
EE: 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?
NB: 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.
EE: What did you discover in your research that most surprised you?
NB: I was surprised most by just how versatile a material paper is, and how ubiquitous it is in our daily lives. The people at [P. H. Glatfelter in Pennsylvania] 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.
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.