Paper: Paging Through History, by Mark Kurlansky

Eight stars

Those who have been following my reviews of late will know that I have been drawn to Mark Kurlansky’s work on the history of certain edible items. In these pieces, the author depicts the evolution and exponential uses for the products throughout the centuries. Here, with the history of paper before me, some may feel that things will take a significant turn towards the mundane. Just how interesting can paper be and how can someone extol its virtues for hundreds of pages? I, too, was somewhat a skeptic, but also highly curious to see if it could be done in an entertaining and educational manner. Kurlansky posits early in the book that it it not paper, per se, that is examined here, but the evolution of human’s communication utilising paper as its conduit. Still not sold? Well, Kurlansky explores some of the early forms of written communication—from the development of ancient Chinese through intricate and interconnected symbols through the development of the Roman alphabet—and how such thoughts were placed on objects for long-term reference. Moses and those Ten Commandments were only a primitive means by which of moving from oral tradition to the document form that allowed many to view and potentially understand what had been said. Stone, clay, bark, and even animal skin seemed to be the early forms of documentation material, but paper was also being used to adequately hold words or symbols for longer periods of time. Kurlansky explores varieties of paper and their acidic levels, which also played a key role in durability, both in the short term and throughout history, as well as the varied types of plant life that could be used to create paper. From there, it was the evolution of documentation that fills the biography’s pages. Handwritten accounts served for a time, but when Gutenberg and others were able to create or hone printing presses, mass communication became possible. Interestingly enough, Kurlansky argues that history takes not the inventor of a concept but he/she who is able to find the best way to apply it to society and deifies them. That intellect has helped label concepts throughout history, pushing false praise on a number of people. As paper was less costly and easier to mass produce, it was also highly effective in the art world. No longer did an artist need to worry about waste, as they could sketch out an idea or a concept before putting it to canvass. Paper also ushered in the era of drawing and rough drafts, which proved highly useful for the likes of Michelangelo. Kurlanaky also explores some of the details around paper’s use as a political weapn, helping to fuel many a revolution through political tracts and pamphlets. There is extensive discussion of the American and French Revolutions, spread to the masses by the printed material made available. During the latter portion of the book, Kurlansky explores the economic ramification of paper making around the world, particularly paper mills and the environmental impact. The reader can see the financial side of paper and how something as simple as a sheet used for writing can be such a lucrative industry, particularly for some Asian countries, who have taken on the recycling process and redistribution of paper back into the market. For a topic that may seem rather drab, Kurlansky creates quite an interest biography that weaves the history of paper through the ages, permitting the reader to learn a little more about the building blocks of their favourtite book. Unless we’re talking about e-books, but that’s for another discussion. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in biographies, particularly of a unique nature.

As with many of his past biographies, Kurlansky is able to pull the reader in from the beginning, laying the groundwork for what is to be an interesting piece of writing. At no time do things go ‘flat’ or lose their lustre, for Kurlansky has been able to distill all the information gathered and present it in a masterful manner, with just enough intrigue to keep the reader wanting to know more. Some may say that paper cannot be exciting, no matter how delightful the narrative, but I would disagree. Kurlansky takes hold of this topic and provides the reader with much to ponder. His ongoing theme that paper is not only so versatile but has come into its own through a variety of cultural and historical evolutions rings true. The reader is able to explore paper (and its predecessors) around the world and see how each region of the world added its own spin. Technology proved to be highly influenced by paper, something that Kurlansky also argues effectively. As the reader will notice, it was paper that brought about much of the advancements in printing and communication technology. Revolutions depended not only on overthrowing governments and monarchies, but on having the paper to rile up the masses. I had never thought of things from this perspective, but Kurlansky has a tendency of opening my mind and leaving me in awe. With jam-packed chapters that offer historical and cultural perspectives, the reader is able to see paper advancements from around the world, and the eventual connection of all these cultures into modern paper making and forms of technology that rely on this somewhat simple and forgotten cog in the larger wheel. Kurlansky breathes life into a topic that might not otherwise be of much interest, but does so in such a way that the reader cannot help but care. With easy to understand descriptions and a flowing narrative, Kurlansky shows yet again that he has a handle on the nuances of unique biographical tomes.

Kudos, Mr, Kurlansky, for another winner in my eyes. I have marvelled at all you have to say about these topics and this one was another winner for me. Keep up the excellent writing and I hope to find more of your biographies soon.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: