Nicholas Basbanes on the enduring importance of paper

October 28, 2013
Nicholas Basbanes signed copies of "On Paper" at the Library of Congress on Oct. 28, 2013. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)
Nicholas Basbanes signed copies of “On Paper” at the Library of Congress  on Oct. 28, 2013. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

So much for those fantasies of the paperless office from the early days of the Internet. And nobody is happier to see the old sheets hanging around than Nicholas Basbanes.

The celebrated bibliophile spoke this afternoon at the Library of Congress about his new book, “On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History” (Knopf).

An investigative journalist by trade, Basbanes went to China to conduct research into the very beginnings of paper about 2,000 years ago. (The Egyptians used papyrus long before then, but that’s not actually paper.) In China he witnessed “a vanishing way of life”: families that have been producing paper for 600 years from mulberry trees and bamboo. He described some of these villages as “places right out of James Hilton’s ‘Shangri-La.’ ”

“People think paper was inevitable,” Basbanes said, “but it was not. It’s the product of human ingenuity.”

His slideshow then moved on to Japan, where only 200 handmade papermakers remain of the 200,000 before World War II. He described sheets of fibrous, blank paper so exquisite that they deserve to be framed.

(Knopf)
(Knopf)

He ended his presentation in the United States, reminding us that “our nation begins — it comes into being — with a piece of paper”: the Declaration of Independence.

“On Paper,” Basbanes’s ninth book, was supported by a grant from the NEH. Although it was only published Oct. 14, the author noted proudly that it’s already gone into a second printing. Yes, on paper.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Ron Charles · October 28, 2013