Self-confessed bibliophiliac Nicholas Basbanes is the author of several volumes on book collecting and book mania. In On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History, he moves beyond the world of books to consider the material from which they are made.
On Paper is not another history of the discovery and spread of the material*, though Basbanes devotes some time to paper’s discovery in China and movement west through the Islamic world to Europe. Instead, On Paper is a history of paper in terms of function, innovation, and flexibility. Working in a thematic rather than a chronological structure, Basbanes leads the reader from the workshop of a ninth generation artisanal papermaker in Japan to the factories of industry giant Kimberly-Clark. He describes the complexities of making forgery-proof paper for currency, the differing qualities of rag and wood pulp for paper making, and the challenges of recycling. He discusses toilet paper, passports, propaganda leaflets, gun cartridges, and cigarettes
The contribution of paper to vast historical changes is central to many of the stories Basbanes tells. Paper allowed the creation of mass media, improved public health, and gave women more freedom. It made new forms of notation possible, from musical scores to engineering drawings. Paper even contributed directly to two revolutions: the American Revolution and the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857.
Written as a first-hand exploration, On Paper takes a close look at a product that is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible and makes the reader see how amazing it really is.
* If that’s the book you’re looking for, I suggest Jonathan M. Bloom’s Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.