Kurlansky (City Beasts: Fourteen Stories of Uninvited Wildlife, 2015, etc.), who chronicles world history and human advancement via one telling topic at a time, chooses paper for his latest undertaking.
“Wood, bark, grasses, cotton, silk, seaweed”—different societies at similar stages of intellectual development have all found substances, all containing cellulose, to fit their needs for the creation of writing materials. The widespread development of paper, though, came long after written language and the inventions of papyrus, parchment, and vellum. Kurlansky has a lot of history to sift through before he even gets to paper. Regarding paper’s significance, the author states his opinion fiercely: “improved writing material had to be found, because the needs of society demanded it.” This informs another aspect of his thesis, which is to disprove a “technological fallacy: the idea that technology changes society.” The narrative moves from ancient China to the Middle East, to Europe and then across the Atlantic, chronicling advancements from cuneiform to calligraphy, accounting systems to movable type, the Industrial Revolution to the modern digital age, all with a focus on proving that changes in society brought about the need for these advancements. To express the need for writing materials for the abstract thinkers of ancient Greece, Kurlansky straightforwardly states, “the memory devices of oral literature simply could not express what they wanted to say.” Or to reason why Europe developed printing technology much faster than Asian or Middle Eastern cultures: “they were societies in decline and didn’t really need printing.” The author effectively introduces the movement from one advancement to the next within the confines of a strong argument that never wavers, but the effect lacks personality. The most successful moments are specific stories of how paper and its relevant technologies became part of daily life—e.g., the “masterful drawings” of Michelangelo, which “were [found] folded up, with notes about the banal ephemera of everyday life jotted on the reverse side.”
Kurlansky has been breezier in the past, a better stylistic choice for books with this level of detail to become absorbing reads.