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On Paper: The Everything of Its…

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

by Nicholas A. Basbanes

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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 |
In "On Paper" Nicholas Basbanes offers an insightful and interesting history exploring the revolutionary impact of paper on human society. From its obvious uses as a writing and artistic media to its role in legal transactions and recorded history, to its more mundane applications in hygiene and industry, this book explores them all. Basbanes begins with papyrus, a precursor of paper, and the first recorded use of paper by the Chinese in 105 CE.

From its origins in Ancient China, through to modern times, Basbanes traces the evolution of paper's multitude of uses, methods of production, and intimate connection to human society. He begins, after offering a brief historical introduction, by recounting a trip he and other paper historians made to China to explore the traditional ways paper is made there. Through quotes and historical references, he gives a window into how paper has been ascribed significance throughout the ages.

The impact paper had on trade and commerce is explored in depth in subsequent chapters. From the Silk Road trade to modern currency, paper has played a vital role. He also explores the historical relevance of paper making in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Arab world in both recording history and the transmission of ideas.

Basbanes also looks at some of the roles paper played in the Industrial Revolution- as a means of record-keeping and writing, as well as a host of innovations, including balloons, rags and hygienic and medical uses. The evolution of paper-making from the medieval era to the present is also surveyed including fascinating illustrations, diagrams and posters from various historical eras.

A few fascinating stories are also offered about some rare finds of historical documents, including a first printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that was reportedly found in the back of a painting that was about to be discarded after being purchased at a yard sale for $4. The person who found this rare first printing of the Declaration of Independence then auctioned it through Sotheby's where it sold for more than $8 million.

Later in the book, Basbanes explores the notebooks of some of the great minds of history, including William Shakespeare, Leonardo DaVinci, Ludwig von Beethoven, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. He also explores some of the tools and methods great architects, artists, illustrators, engineers and scientists have used with paper. The author then looks at artistic uses of paper in origami and magic, for instance. After a brief look at printing and publishing, he concludes with a poignant chapter on the uses of paper in memorializing others.

The breadth of material covered in this volume is impressive. The quotes and illustrations help provide context for the uses of paper highlighted by the author. The writing is interesting and engaging for anyone who enjoys reading history. "On Paper," by Nicholas Basbanes is a well-written history that I thoroughly enjoyed. I highly recommend it. ( )
  peacemover | Dec 8, 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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