Enemy of Oblivion

Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand Year History is written, he adds on the cover, “by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac.” As I practically medicate myself with books, a dear friend of mine pretty easily surmised I would enjoy this one and sent it to me.


I have a particular weakness for books that take on seemingly mundane topics and then show them to be a fascinating and vibrant thread of history. Basbanes’ book goes far beyond that. What begins as a comprehensive history of the origin of paper becomes far more profound. Because paper is such a unique material in myriad ways, On Paper is a series of mini-histories of ridiculously wide scope. It couldn’t be any other way. In fact, the overwhelming impression one is left with after reading this book is that Basbanes could have taken the subject on from an innumerable amount of other angles and still, one would only have a peek at the awing influence, beauty and importance of paper.

Once paper took hold (particularly in the Western world) there was no turning back. Demand forced innovation or unsavory accommodations: while it was still made with rags, the materials to make it seriously outstripped people’s ability to come up with raw/used materials. In fact, Basbanes writes that in England a law was enacted that forbade bodies being buried in clothing made of anything except wool to help ease the shortages (63).

Papermakers were in high demand as well: from being excused from military service during America’s Revolutionary war (85) to a hilarious (to me) account of 14th century German, Ulman Stromer, who was seriously vexed by the Italian brothers he had hired, over their “quite disobedient”  preference to import more of their paesans rather than install a third water wheel to increase productivity.

Stromer had the men arrested and locked “in a small room” for four days, whereupon they acceded to his demands (60).

The alchemy of paper making is a marvelous thing: the special way that cellulose bonds together is what gives it all of its essential qualities: thinness, flexibility, and durability to name the obvious ones. It was in René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur book, History of Wasps  that wood was first suggested as an alternative to rags after the naturalist observed the nests of wasps cleverly made from their chewed-wood slurry. The intersection of science and paper, (not only in paper’s development but in its use both direct and oblique) starts to send chills down a person’s spine.

From dollar bills to toilet paper, before one even begins to worry about the fate of books, Basbanes’ reader is made aware of the probable permanence of paper in our lives.  But maybe we shouldn’t worry: after all, books and toilet paper have a long history together as well:

“I knew of a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time the he would not even lose that small portion of it which the call of nature obliged him to pass,” Lord Chesterfield wrote in the 1747 letter, [to his illegitimate son] noting that whenever his acquaintance found himself so indisposed, he seized the opportunity to read through all the Latin poets. “He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first and then sent them down as sacrifice to Cloacina,” a reference to the goddess in Roman mythology who presided over the Cloaca Maxima, or “Great Drain,” which served as the main trunk of the sewer system in Rome. “I recommend that you follow his example. It is better than only doing what you can’t help doing at those moments and it will make any book which you shall read in that manner, very present to you mind” (124).

Indeed! Paper—good for hygiene and intellect. It’s influence can not be understated.  The very stirrings of revolutions, from the stamp act in America, to the tallow-dipped rifle cartridges stoking India’s fight for freedom from England, (the Hindu and Muslim soldiers wouldn’t countenance tearing the paper carriages with their mouths, as instructed by their religiously insensitive superiors) are wrapped up in paper.  All that we love, like poetry, plays, love letters and art as well as all that we hate: red tape or the “Little White Slaver” as Henry Ford called cigarettes (which also may have their origin, during the Crimean War, in rifles as well— as a way to efficiently use up leftover tobacco from cigars in the paper used in gun cartridges) make use of this remarkable ubiquitous stuff. Paper looms large and little over our lives.  But I must admit my love of paper can be turned cold at the thought of red tape…

During pharaonic times […] by sacred tradition, bureaucratic processes extended even to the afterlife, with the deceased required to present written statements of vindication on the day of final judgement (187).

Oh please no.

Basbanes keeps up a steady stream of priceless documents and contributions of artists, inventors, politicians, musicians, and obviously writers: Leonardo, Edison, Beethoven, Shakespeare, to name a few. And it is not just the historical importance of these figures that make their documents so valuable. In many cases the notes and bits of ephemera that have made it through time’s ravages reveal an almost endless amount of information about how these people thought, worked, developed, and created their works. Engineering, public planning, psychological implications, deception, and communication of both the living and dead…the list goes on. How we continue to archive, store and organize these papers is under Basbanes’ examination as well. Not to mention—paper’s future.

Going far beyond paper’s inherent artistic merit, as well as its vocational merit as a transmitter of ideas and information, Basbanes ends his enthralling book on an extremely poignant and moving note. Paper, it would seem, has a mysterious quality in which it utterly embeds our humanity, in all its stupidity and gloriousness, right into its very fibers.

*Title from: Sixth century Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus words in praise of papyrus (9).


2 responses to “Enemy of Oblivion

  1. Sounds great but the burial in wool acts were to support the wool industry, most documents at the time being animal skins, so I worry about his other claims.

    • He cites it as “a partial response to the dwindling supplies” but the Burial in Woollen Acts were collective measures approved, he says, between 1666 and 1680—at which time paper had well overtaken parchment.

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