With the first commercial production of corrugated cardboard boxes around the turn of the century – making it possible for paper safely to send itself to itself by itself – the Age of Paper had reached its zenith (12).
– Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy
Ah paper. It’s an addiction. Ubiquitous, inescapably handy, romantic, radical, and deeply pleasurable. Ian Sansom understands. More than offering his condolences and commiserations, however, he, as it turns out, is something of a pusher.
‘Junk,’ Burroughs writes, ‘is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product…The addict…needs more and more junk to maintain a human form…[to] buy off the Monkey’ (47)
Burroughs? Wait a second…here I was innocently reading a book about paper – (the book itself, by the way, is a lovely specimen to hold: elegant proportions, not too large, thick cream-colored paper one’s fingers simply must caress [Fedrigoni Edizioni Cream to be exact] in [as the colophon tells us] ITC Giovanni book typeface….but I digress).
The chances are, if you are reading this book, you are no better or worse than William S. Burroughs. The chances are, you have a serious problem: you’re an addict. You have been sold to a product. You have a monkey on your back. And that monkey is made of paper (47).
‘Paper is the material of temporary notation. It doesn’t make a big difference whether this is in writing or is three-dimensional…It’s a strange anything-material that can be anything, but is rarely itself…Basically it’s the “Zelig” of all materials’ (Thomas Demand quoted 128).
Sansom takes his readers on an irreverent but elucidating romp through the history and myriad uses of this most amazing material. Ephemera, toys, advertisements, art, cigarette and toilet paper, nothing is sacred. I got completely side tracked by a mere mention of an essay written by Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows” in which Tanizaki drolly and bitterly explains his difficulty in designing a house that meets his cultural aesthetic while making use of advancements-in-comfort designed and perfected by Western aesthetics. It was mentioned in Paper: An Elegy in relation to paper used in Japanese architecture, which darken the available light…impractical perhaps, but after reading three or four pages on the garish hideousness of Western lighting habits, particularly where toilets and the attending “physiological delights,” (as the novelist Natsume Soseki wryly describes his morning visit to the toilet) involved are concern, I see his point. I may not turn the lights on in my bathroom every again: “how very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination” (Tanizaki 3). Indeed.
Where were we? Ah yes, paper. Sansom’s book is wonderful fun. His writing style is the sort of understated humor that I love, and he presents many obscure and interesting aspects of paper’s long history. Sometimes twisted. Origami, for instance, is not the innocent little craft it appears (although, personally, I find it infuriating, with its ridiculously useless instructions) nevertheless, it was fascinating to learn that it is more of an Upper East Side invention popularized and named by one Lillian Oppenheimer then having any real connection to a long standing Japanese art. Another important contributor to Origami’s popularity was, hilariously, Gershon Legman, whom Sansom describes as “the maverick Jewish sexologist” (151). Credited with being one of the inventors of the vibrator is among some of his other racy biographical bullet points. Yes, indeedy…paper has a very steamy history. By the time we get to Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, a woman who in her seventies invented the craft of paper flowers, Sansom can’t help just dropping in this gem:
Over the next sixteen years Mrs Delany continued to work scissors and tweezers and bodkin to make more and more of her paper flowers, almost a thousand of them, collecting them alphabetically in albums, which she named her Flora Delanica. The images – ‘intense and vaginal’, according to one of her recent biographers…(165).
Okay then. Paper. Who knew?