The latest entry into the growing canon on the history and resilience of paper is “Paper: Paging Through History,” by Mark Kurlansky, the author of previous bestseller on another mundane staple of daily life — salt.
Of the two commodities, nobody is questioning the enduring appeal of salt. Just ask a cardiologist.
Paper is another story. Thousands of mills have closed. Millions of iPads and Kindles have been sold. Borders died. Google is the dictionary. Type “define: dactylion” into the search box and the result is instant: “the tip of the middle finger.” When was the last time you got a postcard? Or found a phone book dropped on your front stoop?
And now the comeback has gone truly meta, with a succession of thick books of paper explaining why paper hasn’t died and never will.
Kurlansky’s 416-page book is similar in page count, weight and historical anecdotes to Nicholas A. Basbanes’ 430-page “On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History,” published late in 2013. A quick comparison of their indexes reveals that Gutenberg is first mentioned in Kurlansky’s book on page xviii. Basbanes first mention: page 63.
Then there’s “White Magic: The Age of Paper,” published last year. “The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention,” was published in March. This summer and fall will bring related books on the history of letters and handwriting. No doubt there are others in the works.
This paper chase certainly does not represent a publishing craze like the race to discover new Nordic thrillers after Stieg’s Larsson’s bestsellers. And publishers in general are certainly no strangers to navel gazing and publishing books that justify their existence, a genre that goes way back. (“A History Of Paper: Its Genesis And Its Revelations, Origin And Manufacture, Utility And Commercial Value Of An Indispensable Staple Of The Commercial World” was published in 1882.)
This minor glut of books about paper is important, though. It represents, among other things, an important reminder that the arc of history and innovation is longer than the period between iOS updates. As Kurlanksy skillfully argues, technology doesn’t shape society; society shapes technology. He writes:
Chroniclers of the role of paper in history are given to extravagant pronouncements: Architecture would not have been possible without paper. Without paper, there would have been no Renaissance. If there had been no paper, the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible. None of these statements is true. These developments came about because society had come to a point where they were needed. This is true of all technology, but in the case of paper, it is particularly clear.
The Chinese invented paper. (Thanks.) But Kurlansky says it took longer to catch on than the first iPhone:
The Europeans initially had no use for paper until more than a thousand years after the Chinese invented it. It was not that they had only just discovered the existence of paper, however. The Arabs had been trying to sell it to them for years. But it was not until they began learning the Arab ways of mathematics and science, and started expanding literacy, that parchment made from animal hides their previous writing material became too slow and expensive to make in the face of their fast-growing needs.
And paper, he and the other paper scribes argue, has the same immunity as other inventions once left for dead:
The invention of gas and electric heaters has not meant the end of fireplaces. Printing did not end penmanship, television did not kill radio, movies did not kill theatre, and home videos did not kill movie theaters, although all these things were falsely predicted. Electronic calculators have not even ended the use of the abacus, and more than a century after Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a commercially successful lightbulb in 1879, there are still four hundred candle manufacturers in the United States alone, employing some 7,000 workers with annual sales of more than $ 2 billion.
Sure, our paper use will never amount to what it was before computers. Electronics are, indeed, vastly superior to paper for many tasks in daily life. But as we settle into the information age, society is again shaping our use of technology, not the other way around. We need paper. You can even order imitation parchment on Amazon. “I used this to make 50 Hogwarts letters that I had coming out of my fireplace for a Harry Potter party,” one reviewer wrote. “The paper was perfect!”