Self-proclaimed bibliophile Basbanes (About the Author: Inside the Creative Process, 2010, etc.) proves a delightful and intrepid guide in this capacious history of paper.
As the author quickly discovered, paper is more than merely a surface for print; it is an indispensible product with connections to war (paper cartridges changed 17th-century firearms), health (tissues, toilet paper and disposable bandages) and politics (printed documents were central to the Stamp Act, Watergate, and countless other laws and scandals). Just as we are “awash in a world of paper,” Basbanes writes, “we are awash in a world of paper clichés”: “a house of cards,” a “paper thin margin,” “a tissue of lies,” “pulp fiction,” etc. Identity is confirmed by showing one’s “papers,” and we ascertain truth by comparing whatever is “on paper” to reality. Basbanes’ research took him around the world: to China, where papermaking first began nearly 2,000 years ago; Japan, where artisans still practice traditional methods; and across America, including the Crane Paper mill, manufacturers of paper for all American currency, the Kimberly-Clark company, which took their World War I overstock of cotton surgical dressings and invented Kotex, and publishing-stock maker P.H. Glatfelter, which is countering the rise of the e-book by providing paper for postage stamps, Hallmark cards and tea bags. Central to Basbanes’ history are people—artists, crafters, curators, librarians, origami makers, writers and recipients of letters—and surprising revelations. In 14th-century Europe, for example, the invention of the spinning wheel led to an increase in linen production, which led to an increase in rags, which lowered the price of paper, which caused Johannes Gutenberg to see that investing in mechanical printing would be a good idea. Only several hundred years later was paper more cheaply made from wood pulp. As his impressive bibliography and notes section suggest, Basbanes has investigated seemingly every detail of paper’s 2,000-year history.
A lively tale told with wit and vigor.