Paper: Paging Through History Mark Kurlansky History W.W. Norton & Company (NY/London) May 10, 2016 Paperback 389
From the New York Times best-selling author of Cod and Salt, a definitive history of paper and the astonishing ways it has shaped today’s world. Paper is one of the simplest and most essential pieces of human technology. For the past two millennia, the ability to produce it in ever more efficient ways has supported the proliferation of literacy, media, religion, education, commerce and art. It has created civilizations, fostering the fomenting of revolutions and the stabilizing of regimes. Witness history’s greatest press run, which produced 6.5 billion copies of Máo zhuˇ xí yuˇ lu, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Zedong), or the fact that Leonardo da Vinci left behind only 15 paintings but 4000 works on paper. Now, on the cusp of “going paperless”—and amid rampant speculation about the effects of a digitally dependent society—we’ve come to a world-historic juncture to examine what paper means to civilization. Through tracing paper’s evolution, Mark Kurlansky challenges common assumptions about technology’s influence, affirming that paper is here to stay. Paper will be the history that guides us forward in the twenty-first century and illuminates our times.
Paper: Paging Through History came into my possession thanks to a Goodreads giveaway.
Paper (the stuff the book is made of, not the book itself) is an interesting little slice of history. It has been around in one form or another for thousands of years and is one of the oldest pieces of technology we use today. Most people today would probably think of a computer printer when hearing the word “paper”, but think of everything else we use it for. Bagging our groceries, wrapping presents, blowing our noses, wiping our…well, you know. It is safe to say that without paper, societies around the world would be very different.
Even going back thousands of years, the topic of paper alone is not quite enough to fill a full book and keep it interesting. Most changes and advancements to this age-old technology took place hundreds of years apart all over the world. Mark Kurlansky supplements this material by talking about topics related to paper such as alternate writing materials (papyrus, clay tablets, etc.), language, different types of documents (scrolls, books, etc.), and more. Kurlansky frequently mentions how it is society that changes technology, not the other way around. Many people think that new technology causes society to change whereas Kurlansky argues that changes in technology motivate the creation of new technologies. Both ends of that argument seem to have a bit of truth in them, but that is for you to decide.
At a glance, you would not think that a topic like paper could be interesting. It seems like something too academic to be written in an invigorating fashion. But Paper keeps itself interesting by talking about paper and related topics to show readers how this seemingly simple marvel has impacted history. It intertwines with many other aspects that allow cultures to advance, such as the widespread ability to read and share ideas.
This book examines paper from many different angles, showing everything from its development to how cultures have shaped themselves based around this (thus far) everlasting commodity. From its origins in China to the digital age in the Western world, paper continues to be a key material all over the world today. Kurlansky’s engaging writing style makes the book an attention holder, as opposed to the usual monotone of a history book. Some of his personal opinions are presented as fact so you will want to take those bits with a grain of salt. Otherwise, this is an excellent read for people interested in niche topics.
Editor's note: This review was written by Nicholas Watkins, originally published in Literature is Life, and has been reposted with permission. It is available under Creative Commons and the original page can be found here.