Paper: Paging Through History

Nothing says “nerd” quite like seeing a book titled “Paper” and thinking, “gee, that sounds like an interesting read.”

But that’s exactly what I thought when I spotted an advance reader copy of Mark Kurlansky’s latest book. Yes, it really is about the history of paper. And I thoroughly  enjoyed it.

Paper, according to Kurlansky’s book, has its roots in China, with the first known piece dating from 252 BCE. Of course, before paper there were other options in use, including stone, clay, papyrus and parchment. Kurlansky details how paper traveled throughout the known world, in some areas becoming popular, in some, taking much longer for societal needs to increase demand.

What is interesting, as highlighted by Kurlansky, is how different civilizations developed similar ideas completely independently of each other. This lends credence to the idea that changes in society cultivate technological advances, and not that advances change society (which is a theme Kurlansky discusses in the book).

Unsurprisingly, a discussion of the history of paper also has to look at the rise of written language, as opposed to oral traditions, as well as the growth of printing, and even art–all pursuits that powered the development of paper and the continued refinement.

You may not think it, but knowing the history of paper lends a different bit of perspective to various historical events in which paper played a cataclysmic role, such as the Protestant Revolution or the American Revolution. Landmarks for their respective eras and people, these events are also landmarks in the history of paper. Paper as a catalyst allowed ideas to be spread quickly and cheaply throughout the masses, disseminating information and ideas. These revolutions as catalysts helped push paper from a luxury item to an everyday necessity, creating also a demand for the product.

Kurlansky ends the book looking at how it cycles back around. Paper began as a handmade item, and some individuals have continued that tradition, though they become fewer and fewer each year. New technology does not always replace its predecessor–in fact, Kurlansky argues that often it just becomes an alternative option. What does get replaced are traditions and processes that are passed down from generations, but die out eventually for the sake of convenience and ease.

Instead of worrying about how technology will change society (which Kurlansky calls a fallacy–changes in society prompt new technology, not the other way around, he says.), perhaps what we ought to consider is, in our pursuit for convenience and ease, are there processes or traditions that we may regret losing?

If you are interested in history at all, Paper is quite an interesting read. Keep an eye out for it on May 10.

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