With a playfulness that begins with the title, this “elegy” to paper is instead a celebration of its essential, ubiquitous role in society, culture and life itself.
A surface reading of modernity suggests that we are on the verge of a “paperless” society, as everything from bills to books goes digital. Not so, writes Sansom, a British journalist, broadcaster and mystery writer (The Bad Book Affair, 2010), who writes, “As this book will attempt to show…reports of the death of paper have been greatly exaggerated.” In chapters that encompass everything from treaties to toilet paper, from passports to wallpaper to origami, the author shows how paper remains central within our collective consciousness, how even when we move our eyes to an e-reader or computer screen, we will see page numbers for the cyberpages that we “turn” or an on-screen wastebasket for the documents we wish to delete. “We are, simply, paper fanatics and paper fundamentalists.” While skipping across centuries and continents through prose that combines scholarly research and conversational engagement, Sansom insists that “this book is not, strictly speaking, a history of paper. It is, rather, a kind of personally curated Paper Museum.” He explores the significant role paper has played in the lives of Dickens and da Vinci and suggests that Hans Christian Andersen was perhaps even more “extraordinary” as a paper cutter than as a storyteller. He writes of forgery and collage and of the paper trail that documents our lives from birth to death, and he writes with an intimacy that paper makes possible: “Paper’s most powerful magic? Simply this. That paper allows us to be present—or to appear to be present—when we are in fact absent. It both breaks and bridges time and distance. I am talking to you now, for example, on paper.”
An enjoyable argument that speaks to the paper lover in all of us.