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On Paper: The Everything of Its…
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On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

by Nicholas A. Basbanes

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I finally had the chance this week to finish Nick Basbanes' long-awaited On Paper; I had intended to get it read before he came to Rare Book School this summer to speak about the book, but events got in the way of that well-intentioned plan. [Full disclosure: Nick spent several days at RBS this summer, I have met him previously several times, and we write for the same magazine].

As with several of Basbanes' previous books, this one combines well-sourced historical treatment with personal reporting: Basbanes traveled widely and interviewed an impressive number of people for the book. His trips to China and Japan, where he observed traditional hand papermaking firsthand, provide an excellent complement to his historical survey of papermaking in those regions.

The book does have a bit of a scattershot feel about it, as it veers from topic to topic (auction prices for items on paper, the NSA's recycling process, William Dugdale's preservation of Old St. Paul's Cathedral through his printed study of the building, the value of hyper-inflated Zimbabwean currency) and interview to interview (Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society, CIA Technical Services whiz Tony Mendez, origami artist Michael LaFosse). After the very poignant last chapter, on the paper remnants of 9/11, there is no useful summation of the book's lessons about the power of paper as a medium, which is the salient point throughout the book.

Likewise, the book focuses to a large degree on the United States (with several notable exceptions, including the treks to China and Japan, historical surveys of papermaking in the Middle East and Europe, sections on the Stasi files and Zimbabwean currency, &c.). This is to be expected, but perhaps the subtitle might have been slightly overbroad. Overall, though, a well-researched and intriguing tale of paper's vitality and centrality. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Aug 15, 2014 |
Exhaustive review on paper, at times veering toward the pedantic. The best parts occur in the latter chapters when Basbanes interviews persons involved in some aspect of the paper industry. These sections, however engaging, appear to be opportunistically chosen, and do not cohere into a reasoned argument or presentation. This limitation appears most starkly at the conclusion, when the book ends rather abruptly without a summary of the broader points of the exercise. All in all, not his best effort, but after the first hundred pages becomes sufficiently pleasurable. ( )
  dono421846 | Apr 27, 2014 |
Long awaited and long delayed, the final product does not match the high quality of Basbanes' usual output. This is due to two aspects of the book: The first one is the extreme focus on the United States. Part I tells the story how paper came to the United States and having contributed the world fades out. The more critical aspect is the uncritical and nostalgic approach of the author. This is an old man's book whose author refuses to acknowledge anything that does not fit in a rose-tinted "greatest generation" view. He is giddy with joy to receive in Fort Meade a small medal from the NSA with its creepy motto "We won't back down. We never have. We never will." While the book was probably finished just before the Snowden revelations, the author's subservience to authority and lack of critical reflexion is troubling.

Paper like any technological output can be used for good and bad. The author might not be familiar with the nefarious activities of the East German STASI with their files. He should, however, know about Hoover's FBI files. Some of the stories told are nice and interesting, it just fails to even come close to fulfill its subtitle "The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History". A sufficient but not satisfactory read. ( )
  jcbrunner | Mar 31, 2014 |
Intriguing history of paper. Would not have come across Dard Hunter or the evolution of paper from other writing surfaces otherwise. Also wouldn't haven't known about the actual consistency of paper and the interesting artisans that champion it. It is a good read for enthusiasts. Although, I do have a slight contention with some of the sidebar writing that the author puts in the narrative. Some of it can be too much diary and not enough paper. ( )
  TJWilson | Feb 18, 2014 |
The sub-title of this book speaks volumes about what this book is about –– anything and everything that has to do with paper, including how many sheets of toilet paper American soldiers were rationed during WWII. If you're primarily concerned with the bibliographical aspects of paper, you will be disappointed in this book. But if you want to know everything about paper –– and I mean everything –– then this book is for you. ( )
  moibibliomaniac | Dec 12, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307266427, Hardcover)

A consideration of all things paper--the invention that revolutionized human civilization; its thousand-fold uses (and misuses); its sweeping influence on society; its makers, shapers, collectors, and pulpers--by the admired cultural historian, and author of the trilogy on all things book related: A Gentle Madness ("A jewel."--David McCullough); Patience and Fortitude ("How could any intelligent, literate person not just love this book"--Simon Winchester); A Splendor of Letters ("Elegant, wry, and humane . . . No other writer has traced the history of the book so thoroughly or engagingly."-- André Bernard, New York Observer).

From its invention in China eighteen hundred years ago to recording the thoughts of Islamic scholars and mathematicians; from Europe, North America, and the rest of the inhabited world, Basbanes writes about the ways in which paper has been used to record history, make laws, conduct business . . . He makes clear that without paper, modern hygienic practice would be unimaginable; that as currency, people will do almost anything to possess it . . . that without it on which to draw designs and blueprints, the Industrial Revolution would never have happened. 

We see paper's crucial role in the unfolding of political scandals and sensational trials (the Dreyfus Affair and the forged memorandum known as the bordereau; Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers and Watergate). 

Basbanes writes of his travels to get to the source of the story--to China along the Burma Road . . . to Landover, Maryland, and the National Security Agency with its one hundred million secret documents pulped by cryptologists and recycled as pizza boxes . . . to the Crane Company paper mill of Dalton, MA, the exclusive supplier of paper for American currency since 1879; and much more . . .

A masterly guide through paper's inseparability from human culture. 

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:31:28 -0400)

A consideration of all things paper--the invention that revolutionized human civilization; its thousand-fold uses (and misuses); its sweeping influence on society; its makers, shapers, collectors, and pulpers--by the admired cultural historian.

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