Basbanes’s page-turner makes a ubiquitous product come alive in your hands.
It seems the ultimate resting place for a bibliophile’s interest in the book is paper. All the things that first engaged you about the book arts — jacketed first editions, fine bindings, letterpress printing and typography — seem just the tasty crumbs leading to that deep dish: paper. This is what you had been moving towards all along; at least it has been so for me recently, as I doggedly pursue books and broadsides printed on handmade, mould-made or fine paper: Amalfi, Barcham Green, Arches, Zerkall, Frankfurt and Mohawk. Why, sometimes I think I might even come to a point when I could forsake type and just let my fingertips and eyes revel in a blank page of Amalfi or Arches paper. Then there’s Sidney Berger and his wife Michèle Cloonan, bibliophiles and paper historians so fascinated by decorated paper that they collected thousands of lovely examples from all over the world. Most of all, there’s Nicholas Basbanes, our finest and best-loved chronicler of the book world, whose interest in paper is so complete that nearly everything about it consumes and compels him now.
His monumental new work — On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac (Knopf, October 2013) —is, you could say, the book he has been moving toward all along. What’s different about this one is that only a part of it is about the book arts and how paper is referenced in it — a bigger chunk of the book is about our world and paper, how we are awash in it (and awash too in paper clichés!) and how remote and absurd the idea of a paperless society increasingly sounds in the presence of ubiquitous paper. The British Association of Paper Historians, says the author, have noted that there are something like 20,000 commercial uses of paper in the world today and, while he has no intention of exploring all of them, what he’d like to do here is explore the idea of paper. And so this book is for anyone touched or influenced by paper — and who among us is not?
In Basbanes’ familiar style, the book roams and roves through history, places, things, and people connected to paper, passionately bringing together travelogue, scholarship, history, interviews, in-depth profiles and personal observation and insights. He devotes most of a chapter to the role paper played in the Sepoy Mutiny; those paper cartridges greased with animal fat. There’s a chapter on Red Tape, the reams and reams of official paper used in bureaucracy. He profiles a master origami artist, he takes you to the mill that makes the paper for American currency and another mill that make millions of Kleenex tissues every day, and then on to the government facility where “cryptologists pulp one hundred million ultra-secret documents a year and then send them off for recycled use as pizza boxes.”
What engaged me most in the book are the sections tracing the origin and invention of paper and his portraits of papermakers. Basbanes begins his paper road trip in China, on the old Burma Road, tracing the footsteps of Cai Lun, the man traditionally associated with the first invention of paper. Traditional sources, notes Basbanes, show Cai Lun making a report to the Emperor in A.D. 105, officially announcing the invention of paper. His statues are to be found throughout China. However, adds Basbanes, recent archaeological finds suggest papermaking was practiced in China several centuries before that official court announcement. He makes another interesting revelation: that the Diamond Sutra of A.D. 868, known for the longest time as the oldest printed book (a full 500 years before Gutenberg’s metal movable type) on record is not as old as the Japanese mini scrolls known as dharani, which predate the Diamond Sutra by some 90 years as the earliest printed document now in existence.
The way knowledge of papermaking spread after its invention in China was in two directions: westward through Central Asia and then Europe and eastwards to Japan and Korea. Basbanes now heads to Japan, to the papermaking city of Echizen to meet Ichibei Iwano IX, a papermaker the country has declared a National Living Treasure. Iwano tells Basbanes that everything is organic with the way he and his family for generations have made paper by hand. “The bast for his fiber,” writes the author, “is harvested each winter from the inner bark of new shoots without destroying the trees that produce them.” A papermaker and scholar rooted in the Japanese tradition of making washi — handmade paper — is Timothy Barrett. He is deeply schooled in the finer points of nagashizuki, the Japanese craft of hand papermaking. Barrett, scientist and professor of papermaking, has devoted his life to documenting and preserving “centuries of old hand papermaking practices that may otherwise be lost.”
In speaking about Japanese handmade paper, Basbanes observes that Barrett frequently describes the experience of the paper as being “warm” and “alive.” In fact, you frequently hear papermakers talk of all handmade paper this way, as feeling “alive in your hands.” Basbanes profiles Dard Hunter, the man who revived hand papermaking, and follows this with a miniature portrait of Henry Morris, the genius fine printer of the Bird and Bull Press (who has, sadly, just announced his retirement), the first printer to follow Dard Hunter in making his own fine paper. Kathryn Clark, a papermaker makes an illuminating remark to Basbanes on papermaking: that it is a craft whose design is “subtle and minimal, since it’s there to enhance the image on the surface.”
I asked Nicholas Basbanes what the experience of writing on a subject this close to his work, living and heart had been. “It began as an examination of the book as a material object — the stuff of transmission — but became an obsessive project in and of itself. A manufactured project that just didn’t happen — it required thought and perception to master — and how it migrated about the globe, country by country, and become indispensable everywhere it went. That, and the ongoing discussion at the dawn of the new millennium about what some people suggested was the imminence of a “paperless society,” provided a sense of immediacy to a much deeper examination.”
This article has been corrected for a spelling error.