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Book Review: Paper (Mark Kurlansky)

“Paper” is a book of interesting anecdotes, loosely linked by its theme. At the end of the book, the reader may say “what’s the point?” But, really, there is no point. To seek one is a mistake. Rather, all of Kurlansky’s books, which include “Salt,” and “Cod,” follow a satisfying formula. They are travelogues through time and space, where the reader follows not the author’s travels, but the evolving, and sometimes meandering, topic. Your job is to come along for the ride, if the topic interests you.

The topic here, of course, is paper. Kurlansky expands that to be, basically, “things closely related to paper,” including printing, writing, depictive art, and paper-related industry. He does weave a philosophical thesis through his anecdotes—an attack on the “technological fallacy,” which he defines as the belief that new technology (any “practical application of knowledge”) drives social change. Rather, he claims that social change drives new technology. Technology is called into existence by the necessity of the society in which it arises. In essence, he argues that every society gets the technology it deserves—maybe not immediately, but soon enough. So the anecdotes are chosen both to talk about paper, and to demonstrate this thesis.

Kurlansky begins at the beginning—with Sumerian writing, not on paper, but on clay, and then the adoption by the Egyptians of writing on papyrus. Papyrus, though, was not true paper, defined as cellulose fibers suspended in water and randomly deposited in sheet form. Then he turns to true paper’s invention, probably by the Chinese Cai Lun, along with related elements of paper manufacture, such as sizing (incorporating other materials into the paper to change its surface characteristics). He fits this invention into the Chinese social milieu of the time, showing how cultural changes necessitated increased access to writing material.

Over time, as with all technologies, paper migrated. First to the Muslim world, and somewhat later, to Europe, via contacts with Muslim Spain. This occurred in the 13th Century, the point at which Europe fully exceeded the rest of the world in scientific advances, the development and implementation of which (such as architecture and advanced mathematics), along with more demands for reading material, required better, cheaper, more available writing materials than vellum. Strangely, Kurlansky says not one word about Byzantium, which obviously had centuries-long extensive contacts with the Arab world. If the Byzantines didn’t adopt paper, it would be interesting to know why. I’d guess it was because they were demonstrably lacking in social needs for more paper, which would support Kurlansky’s thesis.

Kurlansky then moves to printing, with a focus on the paper involved, of course. Here, as in other matters, the basic advances (including movable type) were made by the Chinese, not used by the Chinese to any relevant degree, and then adopted by the Europeans as their society needed the technology. Kurlansky includes fascinating discussions of the technology behind type, as well as various types of art printing, such as woodblock and lithograph. He covers Gutenberg, Dürer, Aldus Manutius, and many more. He discusses book printing and book binding, and a variety of other related topics.

Then Kurlansky reviews paper as it continued to develop in England, the role and uses of paper in the American colonies and during the War of Independence, and the Industrial Revolution. He discusses modern paper technology. And finally, he returns where he started—to the modern hand manufacture of paper in China and, especially, Japan.

Much of the book consists of technical detail, from paper manufacture of various types over time, to finishing effects like marbling, to the evolution from rag paper to wood paper, to the difference between “wove” and “laid” paper. Actually, I would have liked even more technical detail. But then, I love watching “How It’s Made.” Not everybody does. The author had to strike a balance, and you can’t please everyone. The balance he struck is probably as good a one as any.

To his credit, Kurlansky is generally even-handed in assigning “authorship” of paper-related inventions. In the modern world of identity politics and oppression theory (the idea that cultures and peoples deemed to be oppressed by the West are necessarily particularly virtuous), authorship of technological advancements is frequently a political issue. Today’s also-ran cultures, which materially succeed only to the degree they import Western inventions or Western refinements of other people’s inventions, don’t like to admit their dependence. Therefore, cultures ranging from the Muslim world to Africa to North Korea lay claim to be the initial developers of technologies, sometimes correctly, more often falsely.

For example, Kurlansky correctly notes Muslim advancements in paper manufacture and use, resulting from the demand in burgeoning early Muslim societies for literacy, both for religious and cultural purposes. At the same time, Kurlansky notes that development of algebra “was one of the few true mathematical innovations made by the Arabs. The Muslim contribution to mathematics is not so much innovation as it is assimilation.” This is true, of course (although really the Greek Diophantus, not the Arabs, invented algebra), but it is not politically correct to say. The correctly-minded person today is supposed to pretend that modern Western science is mostly or nearly all the result of Muslim contributions, as laughable as that is. Similarly, Kurlansky points to printing as something that Europe embraced because it was “bursting with creativity,” and the “Chinese and Muslim eras of innovation were mostly behind them. They were societies in decline and didn’t really need printing.” Also true—but some people are probably offended by the statement that Chinese or Muslim culture ever declined.

Occasionally Kurlansky slips. No, the Azetcs were not “one of the most advanced civilizations in the world” when the Spanish wiped them out. They were probably somewhat behind the Mesopotamia of 2000 B.C. They were purely extractive, agricultural, non-seafaring people, with a primitive, ideogram form of writing, without the wheel or any abstract mathematics, lacking smelting technology or, really, any kind of non-primitive technology. No, double-entry bookkeeping was not an Arab invention. No, the belief that writing was handed down from God is not “still believed by fundamentalists of many religions,” not that Kurlansky names any of those religions. No, Muslim Spain was not once “the greatest center of Western civilization.” That’s a contradiction in terms; Muslim Spain was a conqueror state of alien overlords which heroic Christians, after centuries of effort, expelled from the West. No, that the Mayans wrote on mulberry bark is not, or at least not legitimately, “one piece of evidence used to support the theory that the American peoples originally came from Asia, over a Siberian land bridge that is now gone.” How could that be, given that the land bridge disappeared 11,000 years ago? No, Henry VIII did not decide to leave the Roman Catholic Church because the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed to a divorce where the Pope wouldn’t. It was an annulment that was in question, and the Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed because Henry knew he would approve of Henry’s existing intention to break from Rome. And where were the editors when “grisly” is spelled “grizzly” and “bales” of hay are “bails” of hay?

But these are small problems that don’t really detract. If you have any interest in paper, or in the development of relevant technology, this is a book worth reading.

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