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 formed the foundation of civilizations, promoting revolutions and restoring stability.Read more...
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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 formed the foundation of civilizations, promoting revolutions and restoring stability. One has only to look at history's greatest press run, which produced 6.5 billion copies of Mao zhuxi yulu, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Zedong)--which doesn't include editions in 37 foreign languages and in braille--to appreciate the range and influence of a single publication, in paper. Or take the fact that one of history's most revered artists, Leonardo da Vinci, left behind only 15 paintings but 4,000 works on paper. And though the colonies were at the time calling for a boycott of all British goods, the one exception they made speaks to the essentiality of the material; they penned the Declaration of Independence on British paper.
Now, amid discussion of "going paperless"--and as speculation about the effects of a digitally dependent society grows rampant--we've come to a world-historic juncture. Thousands of years ago, Socrates and Plato warned that written language would be the end of "true knowledge," replacing the need to exercise memory and think through complex questions. Similar arguments were made about the switch from handwritten to printed books, and today about the role of computer technology. By tracing paper's evolution from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the contributions made in Asia and the Middle East, Mark Kurlansky challenges common assumptions about technology's influence, affirming that paper is here to stay. Paper will be the commodity history that guides us forward in the twenty-first century and illuminates our times.
- ISBN-13: 9780393239614
- ISBN-10: 0393239616
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: May 2016
- Page Count: 416
- Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-03-28
- Reviewer: Staff
Kurlansky (Salt: A World History) yet again tackles world history via another object often taken for granted in modern society. In straightforward, no-nonsense prose, he traces the narrative of paper—and related inventions such as writing and the printing press—from antiquity to the 21st century. Throughout, Kurlansky operates from the premise that technological change is a symptom of societal change rather than its cause, using the invention of the printing press and developments in paper technology as examples. Unfortunately, having made such a strong claim about history and historical development, he does not adequately cultivate it as a working hypothesis. The book’s real highlights arrive at the end, when Kurlansky examines the contemporary paper industry, addressing environmental concerns and solutions being explored in response. He concludes by arguing not to fear new technology or the disappearance of paper. “This is evolution, not revolution,” he says, pointing out that such arguments against new inventions, including paper, have been around as long as humans. Despite what is both a fascinating topic, as proven by other titles on the history of paper, and a metaphysical experience (for readers of the print edition), Kurlansky’s dull writing style and haphazard employment of his technological thesis make this an unsatisfying work. (May)
Turn the page
Material historian Mark Kurlansky tells the history of the world through things. In his bestselling books Cod and Salt, he focuses on a particular commodity and explores how it has shaped our global society. Readers will find his latest offering, Paper: Paging Through History, an engaging and informative journey through the history of paper, printing and writing.
Kurlansky focuses on an idea he calls “the technological fallacy.” This is the commonly held belief that new technologies change the world. For example, hasn’t our world changed impressively since the birth of the Internet? But Kurlansky asks us to think differently: It is not so much that new technologies change society, he argues, but that social evolution drives technological innovation. Technologies develop to support social change.
This was as true for ancient Sumeria, Kurlansky proposes, as it is for us. Writing, as we know it, developed in Sumeria as characters called cuneiform that were pressed into clay tablets that denoted trade in commodities. As trade grew, society developed a need to record it. But clay tablets were heavy, and not easily portable, so from that need emerged the invention of papyrus, a lightweight writing material made using the reeds that grew by the river Nile.
Following the trail of his subject throughout history, Kurlansky begins with Han China, when paper as we know it was most likely invented. After six centuries, during which paper was exclusively an Asian phenomenon, Islamic cultures switched from papyrus to parchment to support developments in mathematics. European paper-making lagged far behind until the Italian Renaissance in the 1500s. Following his topic across time and cultures, Kurlansky leads us into the 21st century and current debates about the end of printing.
Capacious and elegant, Kurlansky’s Paper is an essential history of the stuff books are made from.