James Ward is the co-founder of the annual Boring Conference, a “one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked.” He marked the end of last year with a blog post titled “Photos of Things I Held In My Left Hand in 2014.” A hoarder of free pens and complimentary postcards, Ward has now published his first book, “The Perfection of the Paper Clip.” It’s about office supplies.
I’ll give you a minute to catch your breath.
Specifically, the book explains how things like paper clips, staplers, pencils, pens and other office items were developed. That sounds like somebody’s been sniffing too much Liquid Paper, but Ward’s enthusiastic bounce and dry wit, combined with his charming obsession with “these objects that we take for granted” and the people behind them make “The Perfection of the Paper Clip” a surprisingly fun and diverting read.
The book is filled with office supply creation stories. Post-it Notes, for example, came about more or less by accident, when a chemist at 3M’s research lab messed with a formula and ended up with a weak adhesive that could keep a colleague’s bookmarks in place. Elsewhere, we learn that the modern business card “evolved as a sort of hybrid” of early tradesman’s cards and 19th-century carte-de-visite, or visiting cards. And the peculiar American paper format? It’s based on the size of the frame a 17th-century Dutch paper maker could handle (17-by-44 inches). “A quarter of a sheet,” Ward writes, “produced the U.S. letter size” that has remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
“The Perfection of the Paper Clip” debunks a few popular stationery myths, too. NASA spent bupkis developing the Space Pen, and Ernest Hemingway never touched a Moleskine notebook. Ward also highlights cultural differences. Pencil cases, common in British high schools, are rare in the United States because of the prevalence of lockers. In this country, “eraser-ended pencils are the default; in Europe, they are the exception.” And, of course, our friends in Britain don’t call erasers “erasers,” so when an English colleague asks to borrow a rubber, don’t be alarmed.
Ward punctuates the book’s passages with self-deprecating, funny asides. At one point, he takes a shot at the online click bait that targets the office-supply obsessed: “ ‘54 Uses for Binder Clips That Will Change Your Life’ promises one Buzzfeed article. . . . Having read all fifty-four uses, my life remains as resolutely disappointing as ever.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Ward concedes that the inexorable rise of digital office technology threatens his beloved, mundane objects. But, no matter, he argues, nothing will ever replace simple black ink on paper. “It adds authority to my words,” he writes, “an authority I lack in all other areas of my life.”
John Wilwol is a writer in Washington. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
By James Ward
Touchstone. 304 pp. $25